Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Mick McCarthy’s second stint under FAI employ is already pre-destined to be a temporary little arrangement. But his honeymoon period, riven asunder by a grim afternoon in Gibraltar, takes the brevity biscuit.
Still, after enduring five years of Martin O’Neill’s seat-of-the-pants management style, the sight of some semblance of a plan surely salved the sore eyes of Irish supporters. Cognisant of an impending containment exercise from his Gibraltarian hosts, McCarthy sensibly set up his side to play around them.
Width was paramount, as Ireland boasted two natural wide players on each flank. Both Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick also sortied diagonally from central midfield, increasing Ireland’s wide complement to three at any given attack. Considering both of Gibraltar’s full-backs ply their trade in the ninth tier of the English football pyramid, targeting them made sense. And, in overloading the flanks, McCarthy may have also hoped to pry more centrally-oriented Gibraltarians away from their defensive moorings to assist their outmanned teammates. Ireland could then work the ball inside and exploit the resultant gaps with through-balls in behind.
A fine idea in theory; but, in practice, Ireland’s well-organised hosts held firm until half-time. Perhaps that shouldn’t come as such a surprise: new manager Julio Ribas did come into this game with a better international win ratio than Martin O’Neill after all.
Ribas masterminded two victories from Gibraltar’s six Nations League outings, the tiny state’s first positive results in competitive football. And, despite working with a bunch of part-timers, the former Uruguayan international has molded them into a far more resilient prospect than that which Ireland steamrollered four years prior.
The Doherty-Coleman conundrum
As if to prove the point, wingers Lee Casciaro (a 37-year-old policeman) and Anthony Hernandez tracked McCarthy’s full-backs with religious zeal. Hernandez was busier during the first-half, as Ireland focused much of their attacking efforts down the right, where in-form Matt Doherty led the wide charge ahead of captain Seamus Coleman.
Unfortunately, Doherty wilted in an unfamiliar role; the Wolves wing-back simply does not possess the finesse of a conventional winger. Denied the opportunity to use his unparalleled physical prowess by such deep-lying opponents, McCarthy’s old pal was therefore rendered pretty useless. Attempts to shoehorn both he and Coleman into the same team, in a manner reminiscent of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s refusal to solve the Lampard-Gerrard conundrum, may ultimately flounder.
A verb that one might significantly beef up to describe Ireland’s other flanker, James McClean. Martin O’Neill’s on-field avatar benefited from the injury woes of Callum O’Dowda and Robbie Brady to keep his place in the team for McCarthy’s maiden outing. Predictably, however, another birdbrained performance ensued, lowlighted by the Derryman’s customary idiotic caution. Policeman Casciaro was the recipient of the Stoke winger’s revenge attack – McClean showing all the respect for authority that might be expected of a self-described republican in 2019.
No luck on the flanks, therefore, for McCarthy, who was forced to watch on grimly as his side wasted the space created by his wide overloads. At any rate, on the rare occasion his charges did manage to work the ball inside, the 60-year-old’s chosen number-10, David McGoldrick, invariably failed to use it wisely.
Billed as a technical support-striker who shone for McCarthy at Ipswich Town, McGoldrick exhibited scant ability to either find space between the lines or to exploit it once in situ. In fact, the Sheffield United frontman enjoyed more luck running in behind, as evidenced by the run and cut-back that teed up Hendrick’s eventual winner. Hourihane, who conducted Ireland’s build-up play (such as it was) impressively at times provided the secondary assist with a perfectly-weighted channel-ball. For once, Liam Walker failed to get close enough to press the Aston Villa midfielder. And, luckily for Ireland, Anthony Bardon uncharacteristically allowed Hendrick to run away from him, too.
It might be tempting, therefore, to conclude that one momentary lapse in concentration cost the world’s 194th-ranked side a famous result. But, in truth, Ribas’ side lived dangerously on several occasions, particularly in the face of Hourihane’s devilishly delivered set-pieces. Both Doherty and Shane Duffy should have increased Ireland’s tally from that avenue; then again, Roy Chipolina should also have given Gibraltar the lead from an early second-half corner. Darren Randolph denied Gibraltar’s centre-back-cum-captain, as the minds of watching Irish fans flashed back to the plethora of dead-balls conceded under O’Neill’s rough-and-ready reign.
There were other obvious negatives for that same set of supporters to extract from this one, too. The inability of Ireland’s defence to withstand what was a fairly sporadic Gibraltar press should have folk tugging at their collars as well, for example. Within the first five minutes, Shane Duffy was twice forced to kick a hopeful ball long by the pressure of striker Tjay De Barr. And Hourihane almost let Casciaro in to equalise after losing the ball under pressure in his own half. McCarthy’s 72nd-minute decision to replace the admittedly ineffectual Maguire with a primarily defensive midfielder in Harry Arter also evokes memories of some of the counter-productive, have-what-we-hold tendencies McCarthy exhibited throughout his first stint as Ireland manager. Macedonia away anyone?
Still, at least there was a plan to speak of; that, sadly, represents major progress these days. And, after suffering through the Trapattoni and O’Neill eras, in which every Irish central midfielder was obviously told that the final-third was made of lava, it was incredibly encouraging to see Hendrick deposit that relief-inducing winner. Onward to Georgia at the Aviva on Tuesday night, then; play like this again, however, and Vladimir Weiss’ improving side will finally dish out the hiding they’ve long promised us. Remember: our erstwhile lucky general isn’t around to save us any longer.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112