Friday 23 June 2017

Steven Reid: Great Scot, Georgia’s win took me as well as Gordon Strachan by surprise

Monday's game takes on new importance as events in Tbilisi and Faro give Ireland real shot at play-offs

No one saw this coming. Not Gordon Strachan
No one saw this coming. Not Gordon Strachan
Steven Reid

Steven Reid

No one saw this coming. Not Gordon Strachan (below), who was in jocular mood on Thursday but who will be filled with anxiety this morning.

Nor Martin O'Neill. In the build-up to this week's round of fixtures, he spoke about Ireland doing their job. Georgia was not on his mind. It is now. He'll be buzzing on the back of their win in Tbilisi last night - but all of a sudden he has to forget about being grateful and think about being ruthless.

Three points against the Georgians at the Aviva on Monday will leave Ireland in pole position to reach the play-offs. Who would have considered that possible 24 hours ago?

I didn't. If you recall my words from yesterday's column, I had the following insightful points to make. "As a team Georgia, aren't up to much," I wrote. "I remember playing them when they were hard to beat, especially in Tbilisi. But they have turned into a really flaky side who seem to fall apart as soon as a goal is conceded."

Oh dear.

By the time I wiped all that egg off my face, I was able to sit down and watch Ireland and Gibraltar. But that game wasn't the only thing I had my eyes on.

Fascination

The Group D table was of particular fascination. No longer do I see despair but hope. I think Scotland will lose to Germany on Monday and it wouldn't surprise me either if Poland beat them next month.

Even if they draw that game, they are still up against it. Ireland are in the driving seat again. Beating Georgia is essential and then two draws, at home to Germany and away to Poland, should be enough to see us into the play-offs.

How do you explain this? Well, football is unpredictable. Georgia had not showed any form but then produced a great performance out of nowhere and, as a player, hearing of a result like that from elsewhere can change your mood, your performance levels, your season.

I remember a similar scenario two years ago when I was at West Brom. We were in the middle of a losing streak, short of both confidence and points and looked to be on the way down when we sat down at the team hotel in Swansea for our pre-match meal.

The mood that day was grim. Hardly anyone spoke. We ate the food and the only sound you could hear at the dinner table was the noise of cutlery touching off the plate.

It wasn't that morale was low. It barely existed. We had won once in 19 games. One win from November to March. We were rubbish.

Then, we got on the team bus, travelled to the ground, and the radio was on. A result from Norwich had gone our way. All of a sudden, someone cheered. The guys started talking again, on the back of that one result. We got into the ground and warmed up with a spring in our step.

We won 2-1 that day and it turned our season around. I thought of that last night, pictured the scene in the Ireland dressing room when word reached them that Georgia had beaten Scotland 1-0.

It should have filled the team with belief but bizarrely it just seemed to increase the tension. They played that first half as if the weight of the world was resting on their shoulders. And it wasn't pretty to watch.

Tactically, we were too narrow. Robbie Brady and Cyrus Christie provided us with the width but we needed more. Our midfield kept looking for the killer pass. We tried to force openings rather than do what you need to against teams like Gibraltar.

You need to be patient, to recycle the ball from flank to flank, to put passages of 30 passes together, to move their players across the pitch and then, when they have ran those 40 yards, you need to make them chase across the field to the opposite wing.

Eventually, they'll tire. Eventually, the openings come. But making these things happen requires some thought. Ireland didn't show any of that in the first half.

Worried

And on the touchline, Martin O'Neill grew increasingly worried. You could see his stress levels rising because he knew that this is the type of game that can kill your reputation. If you fail to win against Gibraltar or San Marino or the Faroe Islands, it's a national embarrassment.

Those thoughts will have crossed his mind during that first half. But the words he used at half-time to the players focused on the players being more relaxed on the ball.

When he reflects on this game, the first thing he will do is acknowledge the impact Cyrus Christie had on the victory.

First there was his goal, a superbly-taken shot, after he showed some neat footwork. Then, at the other end of the park, he made a brilliant clearing header that kept the scoreline at 1-0 at a time when Ireland were playing poorly and Gibraltar were growing in confidence.

Could he be an option now for right-back and Seamus Coleman a possible right midfielder? You would think so. You would also think that Ireland need to learn their lesson from last night. You have to relax no matter how tense the occasion. You have to trust your ability.

In the second half, Ireland did. It wasn't a great performance, but it was good enough. That's all that matters - that and another victory on Monday.

Irish Independent

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