Football: The meltdown at high noon: Eamon Dunphy in Orlando analyses the tactical reasons for a debilitating defeat

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The Independent Online
ANY assessment of Ireland's performance against Mexico on Friday must allow that the wicked heat and humidity that enveloped the stadium here in Orlando critically undermined the Irish players.

When football is played in Rio, Buenos Aires or Mexico City, the contest begins in the relative cool of the evening, with kick-off at 9 o'clock or even later. Sadly, this World Cup tournament is not primarily about enabling the world's best footballers to display their talents. Money, from corporate America, and compatibility with the schedules of European television companies, those are Fifa's raisons d'etre, so we play at noon in Florida under the burning sun, at a time when the local tourist information bureau warns visitors not to expose themselves unprotected out of doors for longer than 10 or 15 minutes.

Too much can be made of climate, but nobody talking to the Irish players after Friday's game could have been in any doubt about the ordeal they had endured. Steve Staunton's face told a story. Two hours after the match, the hue of his cheeks was some unearthly mix of brown and white. He ambled slowly along the corridor of the Orlando Hilton amiably dazed, explaining quietly that he had never know anything like the heat of this brutal afternoon.

Andy Townsend shuffled along that same corridor a few minutes later to add detail to the story. Yes, there had been a slight breeze in the stadium. But the air was hot and, inhaling in desperate search of oxygen, you choked as you might in a sauna.

Like Staunton, Townsend was anxious not to sound as if he was making excuses. These are good, tough men, spirits burnished by the professional game in England. They were not whingeing, rather explaining, providing the evidence upon which those of us sitting in the canopied, air-conditioned oasis of the press box, and the millions at home and around the world, who watched on television, should base our verdict on this historic day.

Some players suffered less than others. Terry Phelan acknowledged that he coped quite well. Phil Babb evidently did. Ray Houghton looked as sharp for an hour as he did in New York. Roy Keane pressed the aggression button and found a mighty response. Paul McGrath struggled, a shadow of the imposing giant who had strode across Meadowlands six days ago. That was critical.

At a vital moment in the first half of the Italian game, McGrath drew from his enormous store of will to make successive challenges, this sequence ending when he deflected a strike on goal away from the target with his face. On Friday, McGrath was in no shape to make such a decisive intervention. Ireland were commensurately diminished. Working in this central- heating unit, McGrath was just another centre-half.

Denis Irwin was the most obvious casualty. From the kick-off Irwin's legs were heavy, as if half a stone of lead had been welded to his boots. Luis Alves, his immediate opponent, ran past Irwin several times early on. That tear in the fabric of Ireland's defence would later unravel with disastrous consequences.

Irwin's was but the most extreme example of leg-weariness, a virus with which the majority of the Irish team were infected in the Citrus Bowl. Townsend admitted that most players felt their legs had gone as soon as they walked out on to the pitch. But that can happen, to an individual player, and to a team. That happens in the finals of a major championship, which are in effect one long cruel, relentless examination of body, spirit and mind.

Friday's Irish team were tired. Simply tired. The heroics of Giants Stadium carried a price tag, an intangible toll, that was manifest on Friday, if impossible to gauge. The climate can be identified as a physical factor that left the Irish debilitated as they went out to face the Mexicans.

Yet, arguably, the emotion invested gaining that historic victory over Italy left them without resource for the second paper in this World Cup exam.

Perspective established, rigorous questions can now be posed, questions that must, inevitably, focus on the leader of this extraordinary Irish odyssey, Jack Charlton. His massive shadow colours everything: his mind, his emotions, his character, his personality, are the definitive influences on the performance of the Irish team; on the performances of print journalists and broadcasters charged with telling this story, crystallising the mood, which, in turn, reflects unerringly back into the minds and spirits of the players. This mirror also provides for Charlton a sense of himself, reminding him of the responsibility he bears, a burden he shoulders with evident discomfort, his irritation simmering always, surfacing occasionally as scalding annoyance with those who impertinently query his change of course.

Jack is a very intimidating man. Nobody, player or journalist, wants to incur his wrath, that fiery intemperate rebuke which burns with malicious intolerance. He is a bully at times, refusing to accept not merely the tough question but the reasonable enquiry that might offer us some inkling of his real thoughts and feelings. Thus, no debate takes place as it should do in the wake of this week's games.

Before asking the hard questions, recurring questions about his assessment of his team, the tactics that are formulated on the basis of this analysis, which is the only one that really matters. It is important to say, not for the first time, that Jack Charlton is a decent man, his eccentricities forgivable, indeed admirable, when considered in the context of English football: that province populated with greedy little men, cowardly conformists apart from whom this large man of steely, uncontaminated conviction stands distinguished. He is fitted for heroism.

He is also, it should be said, a formidable coach on the training ground, a teacher of some importance, a remarkable football man.

Away from work, we can conclude, Jack's heart rules his head. On the case, the opposite is true. Reflecting now on Ireland's performances in all three championship finals contested under his leadership, it is, after the two games in this tournament, and in particular Jack's reaction to Friday's game, impossible to avoid the obvious conclusion: he does not possess the imagination to enable his gifted team to fulfil their true potential. He cannot envisage a serious Irish challenge for this World Cup.

A couple of hours after Friday's game Jack talked tersely to a handful of British journalists in the corridor. The discussion focused mainly on the weather: the validity of playing a World Cup in this hellish heat; the iniquity in the fact that Ireland had been drawn to play Mexico in Orlando while Italy and Norway had not. As with the players, Charlton did not want to be considered a moaner. But he clearly felt hard done by. And was also clearly simmering, impatient with this probing.

The real question, screaming in my head as I stood there, begging, after this game, to be asked, concerned the radical transformation in their attacking play in this tournament; the undeniable difference between the football Ireland played for the past two years, the orthodox passing game that seemed to herald a significant modification of the old Charlton style, the difference between the fluency of the qualifying series and the return to the barren resort of Packie Bonner as instigator-in- chief of Irish attacks.

Ireland lost to Mexico because throughout the first half they gave the ball away, Bonner the agent of this waste. This departure from recent convention was only too visible against Italy in New York. Alas, the early goal at Meadowlands, and the host of magnificent individual performances, offered even the most sceptical an illusion they were happy to consume.

Last Friday, the depressing truth, suppressed in glorious New York, was agonisingly exposed in the opening 45 minutes: Jack had reverted to type; the long ball was back on the agenda, as it was against Italy, the players under order to knock it back to Bonner from as far out as the centre circle.

It is agonising to see players like Phil Babb, Terry Phelan, Denis Irwin and Paul McGrath constrained as they were in Orlando. Turning away from the challenge of playing, seeking comfort in Bonner. It was truly painful to see the Irish team finish the game like heroes. They should have been brave from the start.

So, in the corridor of the Hilton, I asked Jack the hard football question, couching it as diplomatically as possible. He took a deep breath, pausing for what seemed a long time, which was in fact a long, tense minute. He looked at the ceiling, and then looked, a compound of puzzlement and hostility, at me. Then he rationalised as follows: getting the ball back to Bonner was the means of allowing the team a breather. Recovery was the aim rather than some crude long- ball assault on the Mexicans. The climate wound its way back in to the equation.

'We won't win any World Cup in this heat,' Jack glumly declared before walking away to have dinner with his players, of whom he remains justly and defiantly pround. He applauds their courage, their discipline and their unique good manners. Those qualities are deserving of special mention. The Irish team are unique in international soccer, in any sport, for being so inspiringly unassuming despite celebrity well deserved for what they have accomplished. Nobody should judge harshly this team. And Jack rightly springs to their defence.

What Jack Charlton refuses to accept, and this more profoundly than any other fact, explains the roller-coaster nature of the Irish emotional journey, is the abundance of the gifts at his disposal. For that, he is culpable and must be judged. The alternative to his point of view in relation to energy conservation in this exacting climate is that infinitely more effort is required winning back the possession that Bonner wastes, by decree, than is necessary. Some of Friday's weariness was caused by the heat. Some by Jack Charlton's tactics. Even more, perhaps, by the conflict in the souls of players torn between doing what comes naturally and what is imposed by the hero of the story.

(Photograph omitted)