As a player and as a supporter, I’ve felt frustration and anger after Ireland games but after the full-time whistle in Armenia, it was the disappointment that stayed with me.
It comes from how the game was at odds with the perception we had of this team heading into a new campaign.
In my first column, I’d touched on how it seemed to me that Stephen Kenny was in a good place after a run of one defeat in 12 games. I spoke of how it had created the environment where he could breathe and ignore the noise that comes with this position.
Placed in that context, I didn’t expect his pre-match comments ahead of Yerevan to take umbrage with legitimate references to Ireland’s Nations League record and specifically his first campaign, saying: “It’s not fair to assess that campaign at all.”
I have to say I don’t understand that as a former player. Such is the magnitude of representing Ireland, it’s inevitable that every game will be critiqued and our Nations League record is a valid discussion point.
This is a tournament designed to place teams of similar stature against each other and we’ve got no wins from 11 with 2 goals. Under Kenny, it’s no wins from seven with one goal.
In our weight division, we’re yet to lay a glove on the competition.
Kenny said after the game that Ireland ‘only have ourselves to blame’ and that backs up my belief there are no excuses for our failure to win. I’ve tried to look for explanations and it’s only left me with more questions.
Was it the timing of the season and the temperatures? The gap between the end of club seasons and the summer break is always a challenge but it’s not a new one and the increased prevalance of sports science means there is ample time to prepare.
Ireland did what they could to negate travel and recovery issues by arriving on Wednesday to acclimatise. The temperature was anticipated, and they got the water breaks they wanted.
This wasn’t Steve Staunton playing at lunchtime against Mexico in the 1994 World Cup. In fact, there were Armenian players struggling with cramp with half an hour left.
Can we blame personnel matters? No, this was arguably our strongest team available with the exception of Matt Doherty and if he plays you have to drop one of your two most experienced defenders – Seamus Coleman and Shane Duffy – or your most promising one in Nathan Collins.
What about missed chances? We had them, but how many saves did their goalkeeper make? We had two tame efforts on target.
I’d be more inclined to hone in our two areas; the tactics and the ball retention.
We started with a formation that is consistent with recent games. I wondered if Kenny would play three central midfielders to have more control of the game and that will be crucial against Ukraine but I did understand it against Armenia.
However, I’m surprised to hear Kenny wasn’t expecting Armenia’s five man defence. Really? After a 9-0 drubbing in their last window?
What was noticeable to me is how narrow Seamus Coleman was playing at times as a right wing back. I presumed it must have been by design to draw out their left back and create space for slide rule passes for our mobile forwards who did show good fluidity in that first half.
But after the match, Kenny was saying ‘we needed to use the width of the pitch more and make it bigger’ thus totally contradicting what we’d missed.
If you tell a player of Coleman’s experience to do something, then he will and I’m wondering if a message was delivered and received and, if not, then why not?
Ball retention is the recurring concern for me. It’s below where it has to be for this level. I’ve been a major fan of Nathan Collins since his breakthrough at Stoke and his better attributes are visible to everyone now in the Premier League but in my own career, I learned that in international matches, even more so than club games, you cannot give the ball away cheaply.
Armenia were low on confidence coming into this and the times he needlessly ceded possession gave their players and spectators a boost.
He wasn’t alone in that. Kenny had referenced Michael Obafemi’s improved hold-up play and yet it was sloppiness in that department from him which started the move for their incredible goal. Fine margins.
It shouldn’t have come to that. At half-time, I felt we had the quality to apply more pressure and come out on top, that Kenny would emphasise how the game needed to be won.
Yet it was Armenia who took the initiative, as if their manager had emphasised to their team that a positive result was there for them after navigating a tricky spell.
In the end, they deserved it. What concerned me was how timid we were in chasing the equaliser and elements of the approach didn’t make sense. We abandoned the passing philosophy and adopted a more direct approach, while keeping Shane Duffy back while putting balls into the box.
There was an overreliance on crosses when it became clear Armenia were comfortable with it. We played into their hands. Their captain Varazdat Haroyan was able to deal with everything we threw at them.
Panic can set in during those dying stages, but information has to come from the sidelines to stay focused. I’ve been there, I was playing in that dreadful loss to Macedonia in 1997.
That was a chaotic game with the red card for Jason McAteer and my abiding memory is the niggling feeling during it that we were imploding. But Saturday was listless as the clock ran down.
Before the game, I really did feel this was a crossroads for Kenny.
A positive win in a competition that has troubled us was a real chance to build on the good results against Portugal and Belgium and the other high points of that decent run.
But there was always a danger that a loss would be added to the file of bad results from his first year.
Pressure will build as a consequence and it won’t have been a nice trip home. Kenny needs to lean on the experience of Keith Andrews and Dean Kiely at this level – that is very important now. As is the character of the squad, something which I would never doubt.
I do not believe that all is lost in this window. Ukraine’s visit on Wednesday will kick off on a positive note because of the incredible welcome that our fans will give our guests and I do believe our lads can channel that in a helpful way too.
We still have the ability in our ranks to ensure that Armenia is a big bump in the road rather than a defining moment.