Watching last night's game, a friend argued that Irish supporters have unrealistically high expectations for a bunch of players that aren't really that great. Mother Teresa himself, Niall Quinn expressed a similar sentiment a few years back, and the chasm between his Ireland-team-as-a-holiday-camp mentality and Roy Keane's was laid bare in that match in Amsterdam nine years ago where Ireland let a two-goal lead slip in the last twenty minutes. Niall was upbeat after, delighted with a result that many Irish would have been happy to take at kick-off. Keano was more damning, lambasting the lack of professionalism in failing to secure what would have been a famous win and also the culture surrounding the Irish team that always settled for second best. Two years later in Saipan, the Irish team and Keane parted ways (for two years) due to irreconcilable differences.
The holiday-camp culture nurtured under Jack Charlton and later Mick McCarthy faded away under Brian Kerr, only to enjoy a brief revival under Steven Staunton's inexplicable and indefensible stewardship of the national team. Under Giovanni Trapattoni, we imagine it has been banished entirely, not least as his sidelining of Andy Reid seems to stem from a late-night sing-song the tubby winger gave in Mainz last year ahead of the Georgia match. The set-up might be more professional now but we still have an annoying tendency to settle for second best.
That said, one is not going to refuse three points garnered away from home, which maintains our unbeaten record and leaves us with a great chance to secure at least a play-off place. Nor is one going to persist with the fantasy that whatever central midfield formation we cobble together from the troika of Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews and Darron Gibson can provide the bedrock of a successful team. But is it really so outlandish that we expect our players to handle modest opposition like Cyprus with more capability than we did last night?
We got off to a great start, getting bodies forward and harrying the hosts and it paid off within minutes, with Kevin Doyle stabbing home his first international goal in a year. It was remarkably similar to Robbie Keane's early goal in the same stadium four years ago and my prediction yesterday that that match would loom far larger than the 2006 debacle proved correct. Within a minute, Ireland were on the back-foot, Shay Given rescuing us, as ever, with a fantastic save. The attacks continued, with Ioannis Okkas running Seán St-Ledger ragged. Both full-backs were in question when a break by Okkas caused havoc in the box and an unmarked Marios Elia pounced to equalise. By my count this now leaves us down three goals in this campaign - all conceded when in the lead - because of Kevin Kilbane's lapses in concentration. Like most Irish fans I have great admiration for this workaday player who has never shown anything but 100% commitment when wearing the green but we really should be looking for someone else to plug that gap at left-back.
After an unspeakably appalling first half, which saw us desperately short of even elementary ideas in midfield and up front, we were fortunate to be still level (one must repeat, it was Cyprus we were playing and not Spain or Brazil). The second half produced more industry if not much more initiative. Keith Andrews went close with a superb half-volley and Steven Hunt headed wide from an acute angle. Things looked increasingly desperate until Damien Duff landed an inch-perfect cross on Robbie Keane's head and we took a lead we barely deserved. As he often does with Ireland, Keane redeemed a dreadful performance with a vital goal; he now has five in this campaign and 41 in total for Ireland, which is a record unparalleled by more gifted Irish strikers of bygone days.
So the three points are there and we are still in with a shout for South Africa. But we have yet to run up a string of convincing performances. Away from home we have been efficient, turning in fine displays in all the matches bar last night's one. At Croke Park it's been a different matter, which leaves me apprehensive ahead of next month's double-header against Italy and Montenegro. Trapattoni is by no means stupid and he will be as disappointed as anyone else with the lack of organisation last night. But he is ultimately responsible for that. The lack of direction and urgency in the Irish midfield cannot be explained by the technical shortcomings of Andrews and Whelan alone. There's a strong sense that there's very little guidance coming from the highly-paid Italian staff above.
When one seeks guidance, Dunphy and Giles are always the ones to turn to in times like these, and last night, along with the dispassionate Graeme Souness, they formed a sage conclave, an uncharacteristically calm and resigned committee of elders. Dunphy, who was an early critic of Trapattoni, slammed Ireland's game as 'bankrupt football'. He also correctly noted that John O'Shea would not dare hoof the ball up the field like he did last night while playing in a Manchester United shirt. Dunphy and Giles, whom nobody can accuse of harbouring delusions as to Irish players' technical abilities, nonetheless realise that modest players, with good coaching and decent morale, can produce impressive results. One need only look at the superb performances of Northern Ireland for proof of this.
We really should be making light work of Cyprus, which we did often enough until only five years ago. The Cypriots deserve everyone's respect, they've made enormous strides in recent years, achieved some great results and, amazingly for a country of less than 2 million people, have got two different sides into the Champions' League group stages. Their players were also markedly more skillful than the Irish last night. But they are still a side that veers from punching above its weight to calamitous results against the likes of Albania and Slovakia. A well-drilled Ireland team would have taken a two-goal lead in at the break last night. But we let the Cypriots pin us down.
It's not too much to expect that Ireland get results when it matters, and, even if we've done mostly well in that respect in this group (only the home draw against Bulgaria should reasonably have yielded more) there is still a frustrating culture of inferiority surrounding the team. Our gaping hole in the middle of the field is likely to be ruthlessly exposed by stronger teams but we have to learn to get on without the help of Steven Reid and Stephen Ireland. Our cause is helped by our facing a poor Italy team next month. The Italians dispatched a hapless Georgian side only with the help of two Kaka Kaladze own-goals and they are certainly beatable in Croker. But it remains to be seen if anyone in the Irish camp knows how to go about doing that.