Brendan Crossan: Are the Republic of Ireland running out of moves?
THE Republic of Ireland’s team bus revved its engines beneath the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Stadium in Tbilisi late last Saturday night.
The mixed zone is where players from both teams are invited to stop and talk to the press after a game.
It consists of a few hastily assembled barriers, several security staff and plenty of exhaust fumes belching from impatient team buses.
In our insatiable pursuit of some post-match quotes we call out to the Irish players as they make the short walk to their awaiting transport.
Last Saturday night in Tbilisi finished 1-1 with Georgia but from an Irish perspective it felt like a defeat.
In such bleak circumstances it’s not always easy to persuade players to stop and talk to us.
Generally, though, the Irish players aren’t bad.
Big Shane Duffy stopped and chatted in his broad Derry accent that remains untouched by many years in England.
The always amenable Stephen Ward gave a few minutes of his time over to a cluster of awaiting recording devices.
Cyrus Christie and Jon Walters stopped and insisted their glasses were half full ahead of Tuesday night’s World Cup qualification showdown with Serbia.
Harry Arter was actually the first Republic of Ireland player to emerge.
Given that he was substituted after 61 minutes and didn’t have a good game, we felt the chances of the Bournemouth player stopping at the mixed zone were slim.
But, to his eternal credit, he did.
You could count on one hand how many times Arter had the ball at his feet against the Georgians.
In fairness, in those fleeting moments, he should have done better in possession.
Arter spent most of the night watching the ball sail over his head.
Looking up into the night skies for most of those 61 minutes was no way to use a player like Arter.
As a general rule, the Republic don’t play through midfield.
Often, when Ireland defenders have the ball at their feet they treat it with complete disregard by lashing it up the field.
This strategy must be a living torture for the likes of Shane Long or Jonathan Walters.
The idea is for them to sweat every bead of sweat as they chase one lost cause after another.
It’s demoralising to watch. What must it be like to be part of a team that plays in this way?
Faced with questions over Republic’s long-ball tactics, Arter gave an answer that illustrated his professionalism.
He wasn’t prepared to cite the team’s tactics as reason for his poor performance.
He accepted responsibility.
“I have to try and influence the game off the ball as well as on the ball,” the Bournemouth midfielder said.
“It’s something that’s a challenge for me and personally I was really disappointed with the first and second half. For me, it’s a learning curve and I need to learn as quickly as possible to put things right.”
Behind the doors where the players emerged one by one, the various TV crews congregated for their own post-match interviews.
It was beyond those doors where Martin O’Neill was doing himself no favours.
It’s been abundantly clear for quite some time that the Republic of Ireland manager can’t abide RTE reporter Tony O’Donoghue.
The suspicion is that O’Neill regards O’Donoghue as a mere extension of the at-times ruthless analysis that emanates from people like Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady in the RTE studios.
Of course, O’Donoghue’s great gift as a television journalist is his ability to ask the right questions, sometimes uncomfortable questions, of the Republic of Ireland manager.
O’Donoghue’s role is to critically assess the national team’s performance. It’s not to cheer-lead.
Predictably, O’Neill got tetchy with O’Donoghue’s line of questioning and refused to share some of his thoughts with the RTE reporter.
When asked why he wouldn’t, O’Neill replied: “Why would I want to share them with you?”
It was a distasteful retort by O’Neill, particularly after he had oversaw the worst performance of his reign as Ireland manager.
O’Neill wasn’t in a position of strength – and yet he spoke to O’Donoghue as if he was.
I’ve attended umpteen O’Neill press conferences.
He can be charming company and is very charismatic.
When you let him speak, he will freely provide candid assessments of his team.
But don’t force him into a corner because his guard instinctively goes up.
O’Neill likes to control the tempo and atmosphere of these conferences.
Almost without fail in his pre-match musings, the Kilrea man says that his players must look after the ball better but it rarely happens.
And yet, outside in the mixed zone in Tbilisi, O'Neill had one of the best short passers in the English Premiership being completely disabled by the team's approach.
Everything went wrong in Tbilisi and may be the tipping point of O'Neill's time with the Republic - from the team's listless display that cost them two precious points on the night to a damaging post-match interview.
Three nights later, the Irish players went close to reaching their potential against Serbia and lost 1-0. They played with more energy and tempo, and they shortened their style of play at times to good effect.
But they simply didn’t have enough quality in their ranks to break the Group D leaders down.
For the Republic to qualify for the big tournaments they’ve always beaten the smaller teams and taken the odd point off the bigger teams.
That’s why the Georgian display was so disappointing.
O’Neill, though, has great belief in his own ability and he will genuinely feel that the Republic can win their remaining two games – against Moldova (h) and Wales (a) – next month to make the World Cup play-offs.
But the fear is the team’s tactics haven’t evolved into anything other than what they started out as – endless long balls, set pieces and gallantly chasing down lost causes.
In truth, it’s not much of a plan going to Cardiff in 31 days' time.