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Knock it long?

Out of his hands Randolph hoofs the ball, over and clear of the Germans. Who else lies in wait but workhorse and keen striker Shane Long. It could be a match made in heaven or another sorry tale on a forgetful day… Shane Long takes the ball down, the nation powering him through the German line before the former Cork City FC forward slots the ball past Manuel Neuer in goal to make it 1-0 to the Boys in Green.

It was a win galvanised by Ireland’s qualification to the 2016 European Championships. Another night for the Irish which would be chaired at round table discussion and mentioned during a polite word at the local on a Saturday afternoon. In one strike Shane Long wrote his name in Irish folklore alongside Ray Houghton, Frank Stapleton and Robbie Keane.

Looking back though, past the distant memories and analysis, to the style & pattern of Ireland’s five appearances at major international tournaments; ping-pong football from a long ball, giving Houghton the opportunity to score at the Giant’s Stadium at the 1994 World Cup, getting revenge for the heartbreak in Italy four years earlier. A long ball forward was broken down by Niall Quinn, allowing Robbie Keane to score past Oliver Kahn in 2002. Randolph hoofing it long set up Shane Long. Wes Hoolahan’s long cross in tee’d up Robbie Brady to make it 1-0 against Italy at Euro 2016.

‘Long-ball football’ and the Irish game are a common bedfellows. Just a simple Google of the long form game and “the Republic of Ireland national team” are listed are frequent users of the format. It is not just a staple of the Irish national team but also steadfast in the domestic game.

Cork City FC boss John Caulfield has come under scrutiny for his long ball tactics since taking over in 2014.  It is a question former Cork City right back Neal Horgan touches upon in his 2014 book, “Death of a football club” where he described, “league of Ireland tactics” as knocking the ball long during a Champions League tie in 2006.

While it’s a stereotype to play on “Sunday league tactics” of knocking the ball long and hoping for the best, one needs to address the institutional instructions at play.

Football is a game which is constantly changing & adapting to the world around it. The total footballing style of Barcelona in 2009 saw games built on procession and passing play. The, “heavy metal football” imposed by Jürgen Klopp in 2012 saw a high pressing game capture the double for Borussia Dortmund while pushing on to reach the 2013 UEFA Champions League finals. A revolutionised counter-attacking system of five at the back through wing backs and countering catapulted Chelsea to the 2016/17 Premier League title. Football is an ever evolving game, forever in flux and never once still.

The Irish game needs to modernize. Knock it long mentality can produce results but in the grand scheme of things it is not enough.

If one looks at the European campaign by Dundalk in 2016 there is a clear cut examples of a more positive outlook on the game. Dundalk’s historic run to the UEFA Europa League group stages was set up by wins against Icelandic side Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar and Belarus’ Bate Borisov. In each successive game Dundalk played a passing pressing game, averaging 47% procession across their journey to the play-offs of the Champions League.

When the Europa League beckoned, Dundalk faced a serious uphill task at the hands of Zenit St.Petersburg, AZ and Maccabi Tel Aviv as the lowest ranked team in the competition. Dundalk adapted their game how they saw fit. Against Maccabi Tel Aviv were happy to sit back with little more than 34% and let the Israelis come at them. Space opened, letting the Lilywhites break and Ciaran Kilduff tapped it in to make it 1-0.

Against Zenit, a team containing Brazilian, Belgian and Russian internationals, all tried and test at the international stage, Stephen Kenny gave his men simple instructions, to not panic and to play out their own game plan.

What happened? The lowest ranked team battled into a 1-0 thanks to Robbie Benson before late goals from Robert Mak and Giuliano cancelled the party for the Town.

The frantic high pitched energy of a knock it long and defend like mad display was non existent in the cool calm and collected world of tactical analysis which Dundalk embarked on in Europe.

Similar patterns have emerged in the Irish game, breathing hope going forward. St. Patrick’s Athletics’ Champions League ambitions were highlighted in 2014 as Christy Fagan tapped the Saints 1-0 up away in the Polish capital. Just last year Cork City FCs under 19’s controlled HJK Helsinki in the UEFA Youth League, to only be denied by an excellent performance by the Finnish defense on the night to prevent a whitewash for the Rebel Army.

It is not a game of dinosaurs but a game of evolution. It is a game of two halves. Tactically analysing the opposition, and not sitting back and hitting and home. For a country with four million people and no professional football league, Ireland is excelling much above the bar for our international team. But this is still not enough. Tactical awareness and fluidity in formation through acute analysis is the platform for further success.

We can no longer just sit back and hit and hope.