Martin O’Neill’s side is top of a difficult group because they’ve made a plan and stuck to it.
Searching for intrigue in Europe’s World Cup qualifying can often feel like a thankless task. With 13 places to be allocated over 55 teams, the system doesn’t really lend itself to Groups of Death. Even the sight of Spain and Italy jostling at the top of Group G lacks the requisite peril, with the safety net of the playoffs spread out below.
Thank heavens, then, for Group D. It turns out that the key to an interesting qualification group is to ignore all the traditionally big teams and throw together a handful of fairly well-matched sides. And despite the presence of Austria, the surprise package of Euro 2016 qualification, Wales, the darlings of the actual tournament, and Serbia, it’s the Republic of Ireland sitting on top of the table.
FIFA’s rankings had the Irish in the fourth group of seeds, but they opened their campaign by snatching a 2-2 draw away against Serbia, huffed and puffed past Georgia at home, then won away in Moldova and Austria. 10 points from 12, and unbeaten through four.
Admittedly, you wouldn’t necessarily go out of your way to watch them play. Martin O’Neill’s managerial career has never been overly focused on aesthetics, and while there have been some lovely moments, most of them involving James McClean, Ireland’s strong opening to qualification has come about thanks to the protean qualities of organisation, hard work, and just a little bit of luck.
And, nebulous notion that it is, spirit. The presence of Ireland and Wales in the same group is serendipitous, as it draws attention to an interesting trend in international football. The declining glamour and pull of the international game has been a talking point for years, as the swelling money in the club game drags all the attention towards domestic matters. Everybody still loves the big tournaments, of course, particularly FIFA’s sponsors, but the long, drawn-out business of qualifying interrupts the season in frankly impolite fashion.
To combat this, and the convenient wave of minor injuries that seems to sweep football leagues just before international breaks, some national teams have begun to attempt to build a kind of club-away-from-club spirit. Perhaps recognising that the traditional attitude — Well of course you should want to play for your country. It’s your country. Are you some kind of traitor? I’m telling the Queen — is a touch old-fashioned and entirely unhelpful, there’s been a drive to take the duty out of international duty.
The Republic of Ireland’s newfound team spirit doesn’t have quite such aggressive branding as the Welsh, with their over-arching #TogetherStronger. But speaking after the game against Austria, O’Neill confirmed that he felt his group had a club spirit:
Yes, I do think we have that. The most important thing is the players do enjoy coming. They want to play for their country, obviously, and I think there’s a good spirit there. Some of the senior lads help promote that. I think John O’Shea is excellent at doing that. And we’re not too bad ourselves, with the backroom staff, in helping things.
(That quote looks entirely benign, even pleasant, until you remember that “backroom staff” includes Roy Keane.)
Whether such a strategy might be universally applicable is debatable. At least, the Irish and Welsh manifestations seems to incorporate a strand of ‘little us against the world’ that would sound very peculiar coming from, say, England. But it seems to be working for two of the smaller home nations.
What’s interesting about the Irish development over the last couple of years is that O’Neill has been able to draw on the influence of those senior players even as he engages in the process of easing them to the side. O’Shea may be an excellent promoter of spirit, but O’Neill dropped him to the bench against Italy last summer for Ireland’s 1-0 win, and Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy have started the last three qualifiers in central defence. Following Robbie Keane’s retirement, Seamus Coleman, a sprightly 28-year-old, has taken over the captain’s armband. It’s a delicate balancing act, maintaining harmony while refreshing a team, but it seems to be going OK.
The rules of the universe being what they are, no good moment goes unpunished. Ireland may have two points on Serbia and four on Wales, but they also have a whacking great injury crisis to cope with. Clark and Duffy will both miss the game against Wales, as will midfielders Harry Arter and Wes Hoolahan, and possibly Everton’s James McCarthy. Meanwhile, Robbie Brady is suspended. By contrast Gareth Bale is back from his most recent injury and gives Wales the one thing Ireland don’t have: a truly outstanding, potentially game-breaking attacker.
But that points gap could prove important. Both Wales and the Republic of Ireland prefer to play on the counter, but Wales, after disappointing draws against Serbia and Georgia, can’t afford not to win. The onus is on them, which may work to Ireland’s favour. Shane Long and McClean don’t have Bale’s class, but not all counter-attacks need a genius.
Even if the Welsh do pick up their second win of the campaign, inflicting Ireland’s first defeat in the process, the fixture list has been kind to O’Neill’s side. They lead the group despite having played three away games and just one at home, and they’ve already been to Serbia and Austria. Only two away games remain: a trip to Georgia and the final game in Cardiff. And if they can squeeze out a good result on Friday, then maintain decent form at home, that tantalising showdown might end up a formality.