Five years ago, Ireland’s World Cup dream was destroyed, almost single-handedly, by a genius called Christian Eriksen, and the reaction was a shrug of the shoulders to say that a team like the Irish one just couldn’t combat sheer greatness.
ake the talisman out of the opposition – an Eriksen, a Gareth Bale, a Cristiano Ronaldo, an Aleksandar Mitrovic – and Ireland can compete, or so went the message.
Oh to have that naive optimism back at the core of the Irish game, as the Irish national team slide and slide and slide again.
The great Emmylou Harris once sang of the dark times of life that “you keep on falling ’til there ain’t no bottom” and the real worry is that with 12 Nations League games without a win, another Nations League home game without a goal , another campaign over before it started, we don’t know where the bottom is – but it’s going to be a dark and dangerous place.
From that World Cup campaign under Martin O’Neill, standards have now slipped so low that, in the space of five days, Ireland have been outplayed and beaten by a team who are just about in the top 100 in the world rankings, and have also been completely out-thought and out-foxed by the ‘B’ team of Ukraine.
And the real worry as Scotland lurk with intent ahead of their visit to Dublin on Saturday is that there’s worse to come.
Ireland lack ideas, lack confidence, lack shape, and in return for gifting their supporters, the ones who only came to Ireland because they fled from war, 3,500 free tickets, Ukraine decided to show Ireland how to play the game.
This was an education, a master-class by a nation ravaged by war, a team with every excuse in the book, not to turn up, not to play well, not to win. Ukraine’s reserves dug deep and showed Ireland up to be a hollow entity.
We have ushered in a new batch of players but thoughts turn to those absent, the Wes Hoolahans, and wonder how low we can go.
We should today strip away the anger in Ireland at another defeat at home and also remove the emotion of what this win will mean to the people in Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia. The unfortunates who began the year living happily in a peaceful Ukraine and today suffer an unimaginably miserable life under the Russian flag, forced to use the ruble and the Russian language.
If TV sets back home were switched on to events in Dublin 4, they can only have brought relief, and Ukraine deserve every single word of credit
Anniversaries are often clung to in the hope that relevance can point someone who’s struggling in the right direction.
Ukraine came to Dublin a year to the day since Ireland’s 0-0 friendly draw in Hungary. It was a good spell as it came just days after the first win of the Kenny era (in Andorra) and the clean sheet against a Euros-bound Hungary was deemed to be a success, a hint the eyes were looking up.
Twelve months on and Ireland are a shell of a team.
Five years on since Ireland were educated by Eriksen, the closest Ireland can get to scoring a goal is a corner-kick plonked on Shane Duffy’s head. Regression, not a revolution.
Here, Ireland only asked questions of Ukraine in the last 10 minutes, from set-pieces, when the game was already lost.
The last time a former USSR nation visited Dublin (Lithuania), a dismal Irish display was given a coat of gloss by an injury-time winner.
Against another former Soviet outcrop, Ukraine, there was a late Irish fightback, finally some energy but no quality, no ideas and no punch.
Ukraine’s goal will put scrutiny on ‘keeper Caoimhín Kelleher but in every area of the pitch Kenny’s side are subject to questioning.
Midfield was a desert for Ireland, an area where Ukraine reigned supreme.
Serhiy Sydorchuk and Mykola Shaparenko are unknown in this part of the world but they were a joy to watch, both men taught in the Dynamo Kyiv school of excellence, and they were superb while the Irish midfielders were miles off.
Let’s be clear about the team fielded by Ukraine in Dublin: they made 10 changes from the side which lost to Wales in an energy-sapping World Cup tie last week, had a goalkeeper making his competitive debut, a back three which had a grand total of three senior caps between them before this game and seven of the starting XI (and three of their four subs) play in a league which has been frozen ever since Russian tanks invaded three months ago.
Ukraine may not be going to Qatar but they leave Dublin with heads held high and reputations for classy talents like Sydorchuk, Valerii Bondar, Mykhailo Mudryk and Viktor Tsygankov enhanced.
Irish? They can only await the low which is yet to come.