By Larry Cooney
Older Republic of Ireland fans will have learned from past qualifying campaigns to never to ‘count their chickens’ but even the most pessimistic supporters could never have envisaged how badly it has panned out for Martin O’Neill’s charges since last November.
Loss of Coleman
Thw loss of team captain Seamus Coleman to a broken leg has undoubtedly had a huge bearing on the Republic’s demise and only a miracle can save them from elimination from next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Wales were on the ropes when they came to Dublin and neither side had impressed in a derby-style affair when Neil Taylor’s lunge on Coleman had devastating consequences.
That game had draw written all over it and still left Ireland in a strong position with the top seeds at arm’s length.
What followed were flaccid displays against Austria and Georgia that were only enlivened by second-half rallies.
Coleman dragged Ireland over the line against Georgia in the Aviva meeting but similar leadership was lacking in Tbilisi.
That turned the Serbia clash into a high-pressure match and Ireland couldn’t afford to have one of those nights where the performance didn’t necessarily get the result it deserved.
After gaining undeserved results along the way, it’s hard to argue with Ireland’s current third-placed position in the group on the overall strength of their performances.
With a fit Coleman all the way through, things might have been different but the problems within the current Ireland squad are much more widespread.
Wes Hoolahan started last autumn’s victories over Moldova and Austria, with his creativity setting up McClean’s winner in Austria.
Since then, the playmaker has been involved in 80 minutes out of a possible 360. He missed the Wales match with a setback, which was unfortunate.
He was then benched until the final 20 minutes against Austria where Ireland mounted a comeback although the leveller was the very definition of route one.
The 35-year-old then sat out the entirety of the Tbilisi affair before coming in for an hour against Serbia. O’Neill says a tight groin was troubling him.
But Ireland could have done with him when Serbia were reduced to 10. Ireland don’t have another player like Hoolahan and that’s why his inclusion is justified when a team is sent into battle without him.
His central role in all of the big performances in the past two campaigns is not a coincidence.
Brady and Hendrick’s form falling below expectations
Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick were expected to take centre stage after starring at Euro 2016.
But they have struggled to cope with the responsibility, and their Irish performances have been erratic since France.
However Hendrick’s availability would have helped out over the past week and Brady will always be selected when available because of the threat he possesses.
What is notable, though, is that both players have toiled when selected in an advanced role – Hendrick v Austria and Brady v Georgia – and actually seemed quite unsure of themselves.
Hoolahan’s comfort in that position is striking by comparison; it comes naturally to him.
Perhaps Brady and Hendrick need a little more direction; and the chopping and changing of sides and their versatility has stunted their progress.
Why do Ireland consistently fail to produce top class goal scorers? Shane Long has not had a good year with Southampton and he has failed to ignite in a green shirt too.
Despite that, O’Neill left him on the pitch for every minute of the September double-header. Jon Walters was carrying a knock and also put in the full shift.
Neither player looked especially sharp late in the Serbia match but there were no alternatives in that position on the bench once Daryl Murphy was introduced for Hoolahan.
David McGoldrick missed out for personal reasons while Kevin Doyle was cut from the long list. Sean Maguire is in form at Preston.
It took until June for O’Neill to go and see Maguire in the flesh this year and realise the extent of his improvement that earned him a move to the Championship. Scott Hogan, meanwhile, was slow to commit to Ireland for his own reasons.
If Hogan and Maguire had been around the squad before now, they might been considered as viable options.
After all, O’Neill did throw the relatively inexperienced – in an Irish context – Conor Hourihane in for the final twelve minutes against Serbia in a different position.
A goalpoaching striker with the ability to anticipate flicks from any combination of the imposing attackers would have added something.
Poor game management
Wales were down to ten men for the final 15 minutes in Dublin. Serbia were in the same position for 22 minutes plus injury time and were practically operating with nine at the end.
But sadly Ireland were blunt when presented with that situation; they might miss Coleman but they still had 11 men on the park. The decision making was chronically poor with players trying to force things instead of coherently seizing the lifeline that had been given to them
Remaining Group D Fixtures
Friday 6 October: Georgia v Wales, Austria v Serbia, IRELAND v Moldova – Aviva Stadium
Monday 9 October: Moldova v Austria, Serbia v Georgia, Wales v IRELAND – Cardiff City Stadium