This Saturday, Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland will attempt to win a home qualifying game against a team, Scotland, ranked 32 places higher in FIFA’s world rankings. Whilst the rankings system certainly merits consideration it also belies the relative strengths of the respective nations. In this regard a cursory glance at both the Irish and Scottish selections would suggest that there is little separating the two squads on paper. Indeed, it could be argued that Ireland have more players performing at a higher level in club football. This observation, allied to home advantage, should be enough to make Ireland favourites to win what looks like being the seminal fixture of O’Neill’s tenure. However, recent history would suggest that securing the vital three points will be far from straightforward for the Boys in Green.
Scotland is a must win
In the immediate aftermath of Ireland’s 1-1 draw against Poland in March, O’Neill said “I’d love to be playing Scotland tomorrow night”. In emphasising his eagerness to face Gordon Strachan’s team there appeared to be a tacit acknowledgement that there are no further get-out clauses for this Irish team and that a victory against the Scots is imperative. O’Neill went on to say: “I would not minimise the importance of the match against Scotland. It’s really, really important for us to win that game.”
Similar soundbites have been coming out of the Irish camp over the past ten days as the squad prepares for what is perhaps the most eagerly awaited home game since the play-off against France in 2009. However, most Irish fans are approaching the Scotland game with caution as we’ve become accustomed to Irish teams failing to deliver on expectations. Since Mick McCarthy’s team beat Holland in September 2001 Ireland have consistently failed to win competitive home games against high-ranking teams. This 14-year struggle for a noteworthy victory is all the more surprising given that the success of Irish teams was traditionally built on home form established in the fortress-like settings of Dalymount and Lansdowne Road.
Dismal home record
Ireland are now in their seventh qualifying campaign since the World Cup in 2002 and the series of results against seeded teams makes for grim reading. In addition to our results against the top-seeded teams the following list includes the results from home games against Israel, Slovakia, Estonia and Austria, despite the fact that each of the aforementioned were seeded below Ireland in the initial qualification draw.
|Euro 2004 Qualifying Campaign|
|October 2002||Ireland 1 – 2 Switzerland|
|September 2003||Ireland 1 – 1 Russia|
|World Cup 2006 Qualifying Campaign|
|June 2005||Ireland 2 – 2 Israel|
|September 2005||Ireland 0 – 1 France|
|October 2005||Ireland 0 – 0 Switzerland|
|Euro 2008 Qualifying Campaign|
|October 2006||Ireland 1– 1 Czech Republic|
|March 2007||Ireland 1 – 0 Slovakia|
|October 2007||Ireland 0 – 0 Germany|
|World Cup 2010 Qualifying Campaign|
|March 2009||Ireland 1 – 1 Bulgaria|
|October 2009||Ireland 2 – 2 Italy|
|November 2009||Ireland 0 – 1 France|
|Euro 2012 Qualifying Campaign|
|October 2010||Ireland 2 – 3 Russia|
|September 2011||Ireland 0 – 0 Slovakia|
|November 2011||Ireland 1 – 1 Estonia|
|World Cup 2014 Qualifying Campaign|
|October 2012||Ireland 1 – 6 Germany|
|March 2013||Ireland 2 – 2 Austria|
|September 2013||Ireland 1 – 2 Sweden|
|Euro 2016 Qualifying Campaign|
|March 2015||Ireland 1 – 1 Poland|
The above list of results indicates that in the last 18 competitive home games against meaningful opposition Ireland have drawn 11 times, lost six and won just a single game against Slovakia in March 2007. At that time Slovakia were 37th in the world rankings, whilst Steve Staunton’s Ireland were at 51st. It is also noteworthy that of the 18 fixtures listed Ireland held winning positions in seven of those games, but ultimately conceded the initiative and the points at stake.
Ireland’s home form over the past 14 years is so consistently poor as to suggest that we are now one of Europe’s weaker nations. The fact that Ireland have remained relatively competitive in terms of qualification during this period is largely attributable to the results achieved in away games and against lower ranked nations. However, when it comes to the big fixtures and when the pressure is on, Irish teams have been found wanting. It is within this context that many Irish fans are approaching the Scotland challenge with some caution.
In attempting to decipher the reasons for Ireland’s anemic home performances over the past 14 years it is apparent that there are some common trends. Ireland have tended to take a conservative approach in home qualifiers. This is perhaps not surprising considering the managers that have been at the helm, as Brian Kerr, Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill all place greater emphasis on defensive discipline over offensive prowess. Moreover Irish teams playing at home have consistently appeared to be hamstrung by nervous tendencies and unable to grasp a game by the scruff of the neck. Even when they have succeeded in scoring early goals and getting into winning positions, Irish teams have regularly retreated into their shell and handed the initiative back to the opposition. This trait of relinquishing the lead in key home qualifiers has ultimately cost Irish managers their jobs. The concession of a two-goal lead against Israel in June 2005 was the beginning of the end for Brian Kerr, whilst the concession of an injury time equaliser in a similar 2-2 draw against Austria in March 2013 proved equally costly for Trapattoni.
If Ireland are to buck this trend and finally deliver a performance worthy of their home support they will need to approach the Scotland game with a different mind-set. The occasion demands that Ireland set a high tempo and play the game on their own terms. In order to do so it is essential that Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy stamp their authority on the midfield battle and that Ireland close down the opposition quickly. On too many occasions the Irish midfield (and particularly McCarthy) have been passive in their approach, but this characteristic needs to be redressed against Scotland. The team will need to deliver an uninhibited performance and play with the sort of conviction they demonstrated in the second half against Poland. To coin a phrase often used by John Giles, they need to play with “moral courage”.
If Martin O’Neill is true to his words that this is a must-win game he will surely release this Irish team from its shackles and let them express themselves against Scotland. To this end this fixture appears to be tailor-made for the creative talents of both Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan, with Shane Long entrusted with the responsibility of stretching the Scottish defence by running into the channels. The options of introducing James McClean and Robbie Keane can add a different dimension for Ireland but it is imperative that the team is ready to provide a 90-minute performance at the appropriate intensity. A victory against Scotland at Hampden Park in 1987 proved to be an early catalyst for the success of the Jack Charlton era. Let’s hope the current Irish team can grasp the opportunity against the same opposition, thereby overcoming their recent history and delivering a result that may well kick-start the Martin O’Neill era.
- Author: Alan Hannify