Jack Charlton searched among the wreckage yesterday for the football equivalent of an aircraft's black box. It is unlikely he will ever find the one major cause of the Republic's 3-1 crash against Austria in Vienna, which means that his team's fate in Group Six is now out of their hands.
Defence, apart from the goalkeeper Alan Kelly, midfield and attack were all flawed, leaving the Republic a point behind Austria in the race for second place to Portugal in a group now so open that even second bottom Northern Ireland could qualify.
Almost a year ago after the 4-0 win against the North in Belfast, the Republic were on the way to a soft landing in England for next summer's finals. Six goals conceded in the last two games against Austria, after only one goal against in the previous six, represents self-destruction.
"We lost our shape and played at the wrong tempo," Charlton admitted the morning after his worst sequence in 90 games as the Messiah of football in the Republic. "We can't go on galloping away like we did last night. We gave them time and space."
Those with a cynical outlook or realistic mind, expected the "down to the wire" situation.
Latvia visit Dublin next month. Then the Republic wind up in Portugal in November when Austria visit Belfast after entertaining Portugal.
"It's out of our hands and we must sort it out," Charlton said on the banks of a brown-looking Danube devoid of his beloved salmon. "Everything I said before the game went out of the window and we made some daft, unprofessional mistakes. But we're still in with a shout."
The "waste" of Roy Keane as an extra man in defence, and a 15th cap for the absent Jason McAteer in midfield is one remedy for Charlton But it would all be so much easier if the strikers had the venom and goal-chances ratio of Toni Polster, two in Dublin, and Peter Stoger, whose hat-trick on Wednesday fuelled the doubts.
"If you count the chances, we'd have murdered Austria," Charlton said. "I just couldn't understand why we kept missing the target so often after doing so well in practice.
"But it's always been the case. It's been hard sitting on the bench recently."
This time, missing the target may mean missing the boat.Reuse content