If you’re like me, you didn’t need a reason to hate the international break more than you already do. Yet last night’s meeting between the Republic of Ireland and Wales provided one… and that was even before Neil Taylor brought Seamus Coleman’s season — almost certainly his year with Everton as well — to a shuddering halt.
You’d have thought that the shenanigans over James McCarthy’s fitness and the war of words between Ronald Koeman and the Irish camp’s Tweedledum and Tweedlescowl that erupted the last time the midfielder was rushed back into ill-advised action by his country would have been put to bed by now on the basis of bitter experience alone.
But, no. Martin O’Neill not only included an injured player in his provisional squad for the World Cup qualifier against the Welsh and Tuesday’s friendly with Iceland, he called him up to the team proper and stuck him in the starting XI. Koeman must have been glowering into his beer when he saw the Irish team sheet and Mrs Koeman was probably hiding the china when — surprise sur-bloody-prise — McCarthy pulled up injured during the warm-up.
It’s unclear whether the 26-year-old would have been deemed fit enough by Everton’s medical staff to make the squad to face Liverpool in Sunday’s Merseyside derby if he had stayed at Finch Farm but he is surely ruled out for definite now. With Morgan Schneiderlin in a race against time to be fit himself, a sufficiently ready McCarthy would have provided another option for Koeman in what is sure to be crucial midfield battle against Jurgen Klopp’s energetic outfit. No longer…
Of course, despite rumbling on for over two years on the back of suspect treatment under the Roberto Martinez regime, McCarthy’s situation pales compared to that of Coleman who was literally cut down at the peak of his playing career by a horrific tackle from someone who was accurately described on these pages as a “third rate no mark playing in the Championship”.
Definite leg-break for Coleman, out for 9-12 months. Whilst Taylor misses some irrelevant matches against Moldova & Georgia.— James (@IondonsGreatest) March 24, 2017
Ireland’s loss as they try to make it out of their group to qualify for Russia 2018 will be significant. To Everton, the club that actually pays his wages and depends on him for the other crucial 30-odd weeks of the season, it will be much more damaging to the hopes of making a late and unexpected charge for the top four.
It might be a little over-dramatic to say that any hope of stealing into the Champions League places has evaporated with the 28-year-old’s broken leg — it was an outside chance anyway — but Coleman’s value to the side is often under-appreciated even when, as was the case last season, he isn’t at his best.
A vital member of a back line that has kept five clean sheets in its last six home games and helped the Blues on a run of just one defeat in 12 overall, the £60,000 man from Killybegs was a focal point of Everton’s attack. As pointed out in an article last month following the 0-0 draw at Middlesbrough, Koeman’s team overwhelmingly favours attacking down the right flank, something that has only shifted towards more balance very recently.
With four goals to his name, Coleman was on course to beat his previous best tally of strikes for the season and his three assists to date don’t really tell the story of how important he is to the Blues’ offensive unit. His trademark bursts to the byline and service from the flanks have been a regular source of ammunition for the likes of Romelu Lukaku.
That Everton haven’t had a natural replacement for him since Tony Hibbert retired — in all honesty, with Hibbert’s effectiveness seriously diminished two or three years before that, the need for cover at right back has been fairly acute for a while now — is baffling on the face of it, but Koeman does have options.
Mason Holgate has already proved to be a versatile defender capable of attacking down the right flank to great effect. And he has already played an impressive role in a three-man back line. In the latter respect, the 20-year-old has had to bow to the experience, both collective and individual, of those centre-halves ahead of him since the manager turned away from a central defensive trio but he will most likely find himself back in the picture again, at least until the end of the season.
Recalling Callum Connolly from his loan spell at Wigan or giving more first-team playing time to Jonjoe Kenny are also avenues open to Koeman but it’s likely he will err on the more senior members of the team for the time being. Beyond that, in view of the fact that Seamus is unlikely to play again in 2017, he will surely turn to the transfer market for further reinforcements.
The whole episode leaves you infuriated, though, especially when you consider that it might have been avoided entirely if referee Nicola Rizzoli had taken the correct course of action and sent Gareth Bale off a minute earlier. International competition has certainly lost its lustre over time and certainly when compared with the excitement of the Premier League, it doesn’t really come close until the bi-annual major finals. And even then there has been criticism that they have lacked the quality, drama and unpredictability of decades gone by.
For most of the players — as captain, Coleman is, I’m sure, particularly honoured — it is fantastic to be honoured by and to represent your country. Regardless of how supporters feel about it, there is surely a case to take to Uefa arguing against pointless mid-season international friendlies and the excruciatingly laborious and drawn-out qualification process that disrupts the domestic campaign at regular intervals and exposes players to additional risk of injury.
Ultimately, for what seems like the majority of Evertonians, an unwanted break in our season that we just wanted to get out of the way has cost us a hugely influential player for many months to come. It’s true that this could have happened in the cut and thrust of a Premier League game, but at least then he would have been serving the Everton cause.
By all accounts, one of the nicest pros in the game, Seamus is the last person anyone would wish an injury like this upon. He is nothing if not a born fighter, however, and you get the sense that his indomitable spirit will see him dispel the fears that he will never be the same player again. What appear to have been clean breaks to his tibia and fibula offer hope that the corrective surgery and subsequent healing will be relatively straightforward and that he could be back playing at the top level while he can still enjoy his best years.
Blues fans will be 100% behind him supporting him all the way like they did another popular player who didn’t deserve the mis-fortune of a double leg break, Bryan Oviedo. Most of all though, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the whole situation was just so damned unnecessary.
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