Tuesday 27 September 2016

Steven Reid: Loss of Walters a blow to diamond system but don't move Hoolahan

Published 18/06/2016 | 02:30

Ireland midfield star Wes Hoolahan. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland midfield star Wes Hoolahan. Photo: Sportsfile

The first couple of minutes on the pitch in a major tournament can be daunting for a player.

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I still remember Niigata. June 1, 2002. I think I'm prepared mentally and physically and then I get the signal from the bench to say that Mick McCarthy is bringing me on against Cameroon.

When I enter play, I start to feel like I'm not ready at all. For that first couple of seconds, I'm looking around the stadium, with the crowd and the atmosphere, thinking, 'Wow, this is the World Cup.'

And then the ball comes your way and the mind focuses on the smaller picture. The game takes over. Your tournament starts.

I'm sure it was the same for some of our players last Monday in the opening phases at the Stade de France after the anthems and the ceremony and all that goes with a major tournament.

The way they responded has encouraged me to believe that this team is capable of making their mark in this competition, even if there is a bit of disappointment that they didn't get the win against Sweden.

Setback

It's only a small setback. A disaster would have been losing the game and feeling that it was all slipping away.

That just keeps the group happier, it makes the time away easier.

In that World Cup, we had a little games room where we'd get together, watch films, play table tennis or a bit of pool. Or else we'd just sit together and watch the other matches.

Yes, there are moments where you want go back to your room and chill out. And, for the lads who aren't playing, it can be a long and lonely time. But our group is one where there's never really been any cliques or egos.

It's a simple fact, though, that on football trips, the mood is generally better when the results are better. The week would have dragged after a loss.

A draw means we are still in with a really good chance of progressing and if we bring the attitude from last Monday into our remaining two matches, Belgium and Italy won't enjoy playing us.

The way Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick embraced the game was the real plus.

Dominated

In 2002, we had a squad dominated by lads who'd never tasted that stage before. They made it their own. Robbie Keane and Damien Duff never looked afraid.

I thought we looked more nervous in some qualifying matches and even a few friendlies than we did against Sweden.

It was the biggest game of so many careers and they played as though they were used to the pressure.

We were full of confidence, full of aggression, full of desire. We took the game to them.

It wasn't one of those games where we sat off and tried to use Shane Long on the counter- attack. No, it was much better than that.

Today might call for a different set of skills. My worry is how much the loss of Jonathan Walters will affect us. Losing him could be a big blow.

We have an effective system now that Martin O'Neill might have stumbled on, a diamond with Glenn Whelan behind James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick, with Wes Hoolahan ahead.

Trust me, I've played in a diamond and it's a difficult formation to play.

That needs work. It needs great energy in midfield on either side. It's also crucial you've got two up front and I couldn't think of a better two to do that defensive job than Jon and Longy.

It was working quite well last Monday until you could see Jon was struggling and he came off injured.

I scanned through our list of substitutes and I just couldn't see a like-for-like replacement. I see the manager has admitted that himself.

What we might do now is change the formation and bring James McClean in, but that might mean switching Wes to the wing and that, for me, takes away his best quality. He's at his most effective in a central position, finding those little spaces.

But we have to be solid, or else Belgium have the creativity to cause us real problems.

They won't be a surprise package to our boys, seeing as most of their main players are in the Premier League.

Some might say that's an advantage, that we know what they're capable of doing.

There's another way of looking at it, though. In my career, I found that you might go and play the very top, top teams at Old Trafford or the Emirates or the Etihad or Stamford Bridge and they'll have the game won before you get on the pitch.

Why? Because players sometimes just give them too much respect because they're afraid of how good they can be.

Sometimes with an unknown force, you show clips on video analysis and go into it with a bit of freedom.

The biggest confidence booster for our lads will be what Italy did to them. That will have given everyone a lift. It suggested they're a team which isn't quite gelling, another reminder that organisation and a good spirit can carry you a long way.

And maybe Belgium are just like Manchester City - an inferior force when they don't have the security of Vincent Kompany in their team.

The way this competition is panning out should be a natural source of encouragement for the lads in the hotel.

Look at Iceland against Portugal, Northern Ireland against Ukraine. Smaller nations upsetting the big boys.

It's proven that everyone has a chance. We need seven, eight or nine lads to be really at the top of their game. If it's only five or six we're in trouble.

Belgium are the team under pressure, while we've had a good start. Now let's go and make it a great one.

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