After experimenting with a thing called football last Monday, Ireland returned to what it knows best yesterday in Bordeaux: hope and negation.
It's been an effective approach for Ireland down through the years. It qualified us for (arguably) two tournaments and had us on the verge of qualifying for a third. It is a philosophy that does not require technique or ability, just physicality, aggression and intelligence. Above all things, it cannot be implemented with centrebacks who are prone to doing daft things, which is to say it cannot be properly implemented with Ciaran Clark in the starting lineup.
Let's park the fact that Clark has been industrious and very effective in marking two of the best 20 strikers in the world at this tournament. He has also proven himself to be a massive liability to a team whose ambitions, on the field, are as limited as Ireland's.
Clark had more scoring opportunities than Zlatan against Sweden. He only converted one goal but it could have easily been three. He was then the architect of two of Belgium's three goals. McCarthy's lazy tackle on De Bruyne was the making of Belgium's opener, but Lukaku was only afforded ten acres of open space in front of goal because Clark got caught upfield as Ireland attacked in Belgium's kickboxing zone. For the third, Clark turned himself into a torpedo and tried to dismember Eden Hazard. If you watch the goal in slow motion, Hazard puffs his cheeks just a moment after he knows Clark is behind him. He realised just how close to death he had been.
Yes, Ireland allowed two counterattacking goals yesterday. To Belgium. One was understandable - we were chasing the game. Neither was forgivable.
Ciaran Clark has played heroically for Martin O'Neill this tournament. But Ciaran Clark is one of those superheroes who breaks things all the time. He is a massive liability to Ireland's defense.
Martin O'Neill had about three major decisions to make ahead of this tournament. The most pressing one was who should partner O'Shea in the middle of defense. Clark and Richard Keogh started both Bosnia ties. Keogh had started the Germany win and the loss in Poland in October. O'Neill seemed to favour him. O'Neill had also preferred Mark Wilson at the beginning of the campaign but he was unavailable. Shane Duffy had his best season as a pro with Blackburn. Clark had been a regular in one of the worst sides in Premier League history.
The options weren't amazing, admittedly. O'Neill went for Clark. As Brian Cowen would say, we are where are.
It does make one long for the brutal efficiency of Richard Dunne. Despite being near the top of the Premier League own goal charts, Dunne was always reliable for Ireland. Trap's entire philosophy was built around the fact that Richard Dunne was mostly a kind of human wall when he wore a green shirt. You think of that game in Moscow in 2011 and Dunne bloodying himself along the sideline. If Dunne was in Clark's body on that Hazard lunge, Hazard would been on the ground and the tackle might have been clean. And there definitely would have been blood.
Clark is 26 and has time to grow into a smarter defender (Dunne did not become DUNNE until his thirties). He will certainly be given the space to grow by O'Neill. John O'Shea will play his final Ireland game Wednesday night, and the options to replace him are, as discussed earlier, scant.
But something's going to have to change. Because unless Ireland change course dramatically and start experimenting more with this football thing, there are going to be a lot of long nights holding on for dear life. A lot of gritty draws. A lot of negativity. Ireland have been quite good at implementing this philosophy over the last decade, but the whole thing collapses with a central defender vulnerable to daft mental lapses like Ciaran Clark.