Mick McCarthy defends holding back Aaron Connolly as Irish limp to a draw in Georgia
2020 European Qualifying Group D: Georgia 0 Republic of Ireland 0
TBILISI was the time to roll the dice – and Mick refused to do it. Seventy-eight interminable minutes passed before the Republic of Ireland manager cut Aaron Connolly loose on Georgia.
Within the short time the U21 starlet was on the pitch he had two shots on goal. More than anybody else mustered on a desperately bleak Saturday evening in the Georgian capital.
And Connolly wasn’t even the first choice substitute; that privilege went to Alan Browne as McCarthy seemed more inclined to hold on to a point than chase three.
There were so many irrefutable reasons not to get the Galway teenager on the pitch earlier.
Firstly, he’s been in great form, evidenced by his two-goal salvo for Brighton against Tottenham Hotspur last week.
Secondly, he has pace to burn.
And, thirdly, the Republic attack was malfunctioning as early as the opening minutes.
The James Collins experiment failed miserably. Ireland’s rookie target man looked off the pace, he didn’t have the mobility to close down the Georgian centre backs and nothing stuck to him all night.
Gia Grigalava and Guram Kashia must have been rubbing their hands when Collins remained on the field until the closing minutes as the home side played all the football without a cutting edge.
Asked if he regretted not bringing on Connolly sooner, McCarthy replied: “Not really, no. I was conscious of making sure we could defend free kicks and corners, as much as anything, with the bodies we have in the box.
“James Collins had a right old scrap there and he was defending the six-yard box. I just thought in the time we might nick it with him [Connolly], he's done really well and he's put himself in a place to play on Tuesday. [But] I make substitutions as I see fit, I don't look back and regret that I should have done them sooner.”
He added: “I made the subs and tried to win it but I went away with a point. They're a good team but I get the feeling, even from the Georgian journalists, that we should be much better and should go and win. That's a ridiculous notion.”
Callum Robinson was equally ineffective on Ireland’s right side and while there was more energy down the left flank James McClean’s end product wasn't any better.
But when Connolly entered the fray, everything changed. Out of respect for the youngster’s pace, the Georgian defence took a step back and he was able to stretch the play for the first time in the game.
One of his efforts flashed wide and another employed the home side’s goalkeeper Giorgi Loria into a rare save. Apart from John Egan’s early header that came off the post, the Irish performance was grim.
As the game grew, the display was all a bit Martin O’Neill-esque, with no discernible attacking plan.
The visitors defended stoutly, helped by some terrible shooting from their hosts, but from midfield upwards there were few positives to draw upon ahead of tomorrow night’s critical clash against Switzerland in Geneva until Connolly’s arrival.
Speaking with Irish reporters late on Saturday night, McCarthy gave a strong hint Connolly could be promoted to the starting line-up especially with David McGoldrick ruled out for the Swiss tie.
“Well, you’ve seen him come on and do what he’s done,” said the manager. “There’s always that ‘well, why didn’t he start’. Well, when you’re at the last 10 or 12 minutes, somebody who comes on like that can run in behind.
“If he’d started, he might not have been the same. But we’ve seen what he can do and we might have to have a bit of help with him. He certainly won’t be a lone runner [in Geneva].”
Matt Doherty didn’t convince at left back with Enda Stevens expected to resume the role in Geneva after serving a one-match suspension. Shane Duffy came through after winning his fitness race and should be okay to continue alongside the impressive John Egan.
Despite the disappointment on Saturday night, the Republic are still at match-point. If they somehow pull off a shock and beat the Swiss tomorrow night, they qualify for next summer’s Euro finals.
Should they fail to win, it is likely to come down to a must-win clash at home to Denmark next month.
The stakes are arguably higher for the Swiss tomorrow night as they really need to beat the Irish to put themselves back in contention especially after falling to the Danes, 1-0, in Copenhagen on Saturday night.
McCarthy, though, couldn’t fathom the expectation that the Irish should have banked the three points in Tbilisi.
"Come on, you all like to put that expectation there,” he said. “At the end of it I think that we have come away with a good point.
"There are teams who might have come here and not played as well as we did and get beaten; concede from a corner, concede from a break. Whenever you are the underdog then the pressure will be on Switzerland to beat us."
McCarthy acknowledged his side could have been better in possession but was nevertheless irked by that same criticism levelled at his players.
“See, I find that slightly ridiculous that I didn’t ask them to play better with the ball,” he said.
“We try our level best to play as well as we possibly can. And they were trying their hardest to play well.
“To be honest, if there’s any disappointment in the dressing room, it was our performance with the ball. Because we’ve come away with a clean sheet again.”
The Irish are still unbeaten in Group D – but there was an overwhelming sense that McCarthy’s men missed a golden opportunity in Tbilisi to edge closer to next summer’s Euro finals.