Brian Kerr made a number of bad decisions last Wednesday night. The most obvious was sending out Kevin Kilbane and Roy Keane to take on Vieira, Makelele and Zidane. The only reason Ireland were not completely overrun was that the French midfielders were largely inept, while Keane was magnificent. He matched Vieira and Makelele by himself, and the thought that he might now play just one more game for Ireland is deeply depressing.
Kilbane next to him was a sad parody of the box-to-box midfielder Kerr presumably wanted him to be. Everything he touched in the first half seemed to go to French feet. We've seen enough of Kilbane by now (34 consecutive competitive games!) to know that he's not an international-quality central midfielder. No team with him at its hub could realistically expect to qualify for the World Cup. Yet Kilbane has produced many performances like this before and always kept his place; Kerr's so-far unflinching loyalty to the player suggests he'll still be in the team come the Switzerland game. All we can hope for is that the manager's instinct of self-preservation kicks in before then.
Kerr also blundered by picking Andy Reid on the right of midfield. Reid was a popular choice for the position because he's seen as an attacking flair player, a more "positive" choice than say, Steve Finnan. The problem is Reid cannot play on the right of midfield. He can't kick with his right foot, and he can't beat an opponent for pace. That means he can only ever cut inside, which makes him easy to defend against. If Kerr was intent on both playing 4-4-2 and picking Reid, he should have played him on the left, where he could at least aim crosses into the box, and put Duff, who can kick with both feet and beat a man for pace, on the right. In the event, with Duff starved of service, our most creative attacking player was Jean-Alain Boumsong.
The players can brace themselves for some flak over the next few weeks. The Evening Herald's stories about Roy Keane and Kerr falling out over Robbie Keane's boozing were obviously fiction, but why should everyone be penalised for the excesses of one paper? The players' subsequent refusal to speak to any of the media before the biggest game in two years was a petulant over-reaction and they shouldn't be surprised if the post-match assessments are unusually sour.
In any case, the Herald was entitled to question why a player who hasn't played regular first-team football for years, and has barely a match under his belt this season, felt entitled to be going out on the piss a couple of nights in a row just days before the game. Robbie Keane might have got away with it if he'd played a blinder, but all he did was throw himself to the ground and moan at the referee. He never looked dangerous. The impression is growing all the time that we've already seen the best of him, that he doesn't have the application to make the most of his natural talent. It would be nice if Chris Hughton could take Robbie aside at Spurs and teach him some of the personal training habits that have him, at 46, looking younger than his 25-year-old charge.
Of course, it's too easy to sit and lecture Kerr on what he should have done after the event. There's no way to know whether different tactics or different players would have worked any better. Kerr would doubtless point out that the game was close and decided by a piece of individual genius. But that's precisely what makes the loss so hard to accept. France played badly, but for some reason we couldn't seize the opportunity. Yet again most of our players flopped in a pressure game, playing without real determination or conviction, just as they did against Russia, against Switzerland, against Israel – in fact, just as they've done in every crunch game since Kerr took over. We're at a loss to know what ails them. Is it that Kerr is picking the wrong team and playing the wrong tactics? Is it that he can't motivate the players? Or is it that the players just aren't good enough? Unfortunately for Kerr's long-term prospects, there's only one way to find out for sure.