Difficult times for the Republic of Ireland on and off the pitch

by Ger McCarthy

Back Page Football contributor Ger McCarthy worries about the dwindling attendances for recent Republic of Ireland internationals, reviews the Irish 2-1 win over Macedonia and looks ahead to Tuesday night’s friendly international with Uruguay.

Irrespective of your views on the disappointing tactics employed during the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2012 qualifier victory over Macedonia in the Aviva on Saturday night the fact is the 2-1 result obtained leaves Giovanni Trapattoni’s men in with a realistic chance of qualifying for the finals in Poland / Ukraine next summer. The Italian manager stressed repeatedly during the week long build-up to the encounter that the result was more important than the performance.

But does the end justify the means?

The paltry attendance (the official figure was never announced) and the Irish side’s inability to close out a game when they were 2-0 ahead and looking relatively comfortable suggests Ireland will have to up their performances considerably before the Aviva Stadium is likely to be sold out for a football international again.

A country in the midst of the worst recession to ever hit the state was bound to have a profound effect on their fan’s ability to meet the substantial costs of attending international fixtures in the nation’s capital. Naturally the comments from Irish fans and media following the victory concentrated on the poor team performance and lack of cutting edge rather than on the positive of being joint-top of a group that includes both Russia and Slovakia. It’s probable most of the fans in attendance were also venting their anger at the cost of having to pay so much money for getting access to the ground.

Casual

It is hard to argue with those who shelled out between 45 and 60 euro for a ticket in a half empty stadium only to see their defence-minded side hold on for a narrow victory. The worry is the casual fan that has been turning up for the home internationals is now being priced out. Spare a thought for the football coach or mother/father who have to bring their kids to the game, eat and drink something in the stadium and possibly stay overnight before returning home.

At a time when attendances continue to dwindle the FAI has the most pivotal role to play in attracting fans back to the Aviva. The decision to set the entry ticket fee for last season’s domestic FAI Cup final at 5 euro between Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers meant over 36,000 supporters turned up. This is a critical time in Irish soccer (what year isn’t I hear you say) and unless the casual fans can be enticed to keep turning up then the FAI will be the big losers in the long run.

What can the FAI do? Quite simply halve the current ticket prices for the remainder of the 2011-2012 campaign and offer better concessions to soccer clubs to bring along as many young fans as possible to the internationals. The FAI must act fast because should Ireland fail to qualify for the next European Championships a generation of new fans in difficult financial times will be lost forever.

Saturday Night

A Republic of Ireland first team squad devoid of the talents of both John O’Shea in defence and Shay Given between the sticks recorded their third victory of the qualifying campaign to sit joint-top of Group B with Slovakia and Russia on 10 points apiece on Saturday night. Granted Slovakia’s win – loss record has them ahead of the Irish and Russians on a technicality but there are still five rounds of fixtures remaining with plenty of twists and turns before the top two in Group B are decided.

The Macedonia game offered plenty of positives none more so than Kieran Westwood who deputised in goal for the absent Given and looked composed and solid throughout. Westwood capped a competent display with a crucial save late to help Ireland maintain their slender 2-1 advantage. That lead had been achieved through a first international goal from Aiden McGeady who broke the deadlock after two minutes and then Robbie Keane who capitalised on some sloppy goalkeeping from Edin Nuredinoski in the Macedonia goal to double Ireland’s lead.

It was at this point that Ireland would have been expected to push on and add to their tally but a combination of sloppy finishing and the lack of a killer pass in the final third allowed previously quiet Macedonia back into the game. Ireland were punished for switching off minutes before the interval when Ivan Trichkovski turned Richard Dunne inside out before calmly finishing to the net. The second period saw Ireland retreat into defensive mode and Inter Milan’s Pandev should have done better with a free shot from 10 yards out. Ireland attacked sporadically with a snap-shot from an unusually subdued Damien Duff whistling past the post.

James McCarthy’s introduction was a welcome addition and caused the loudest roar of the night but Ireland were indebted to Westwood late on when he spread himself superbly to deny Trichkovski a certain goal. The final whistle was greeted with relief following a poor second half showing yet the result elevates Ireland into joint-top of the group. Other positives on the night included the performance of Kevin Foley at right back and substitute Shane Long performing heroically having taken a wild boot to the head.

The overriding emotion from the home fans was one of disappointment at such a flat performance having been gifted an early 2-0 lead. A serious injury to Kevin Doyle also added to the fans frustration on a night Ireland maintained their bid to qualify for Ukraine/ Poland with a narrow victory.

Friendly

The South American, Uruguay, visit the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night having enjoyed a terrific World Cup in South Africa. Liverpool’s new striker Luis Suarez is absent but his strike partner in chief, Athletico Madrid’s Diego Forlan makes the trip and should cause plenty of problems for a new look Republic of Ireland back four.

The Irish defence will play in front of Kieran Westwood following his first competitive international cap on Saturday night and will be anchored by Darren O’Dea from Celtic and new Captain Steven Kelly of Fulham. Kevin Foley retains his right back position after an impressive showing against the Macedonians with Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clarke coming in at left back in place of Kevin Kilbane.

James McCarthy gets his first start following a brief cameo the previous Saturday night and will be joined by Derby’s Paul Green and Birmingham’s Keith Fahey in the centre of the park. Shane Long will plough a lone furrow up front supported by wingers Liam Lawrence and Andy Keogh.

It is unlikely there will be more than 20,000 in attendance but the Irish soccer fans badly need an encouraging performance irrespective of the result. Let’s hope the likes of Clarke, McCarthy and Foley can produce a display worth talking about and attract the disillusioned fans back to Irish soccer.

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