Monday 27 February 2017

O'Neill a master of the waiting game

Eamonn Sweeney

Martin O'Neill could play 'the waiting game' against Poland as this tactic served the Ireland team well against Germany
Martin O'Neill could play 'the waiting game' against Poland as this tactic served the Ireland team well against Germany

Ireland's win over Germany on Thursday night was spookily similar to the win over Holland in September 2001 which represented our last international victory over world-class opposition.

There was the feeling at the start that it was only a matter of time before the visitors scored; the shaky first 20 minutes when this grim prophecy seemed about to come true; the relief at half-time changing to a feeling that something special might be on the cards as the favourites grew increasingly frustrated; the spectacular strike which proved this was indeed the case; the frantic scramble to hold on in the closing minutes and the untrammelled sense of jubilation at the final whistle. Even the time of the goals is similar; McAteer's against Holland came in the 68th minute, Long's against Germany in the 70th.

It was such a great Irish performance that it's a pity managers and players don't have more time to bask in its glory. Instead the fact that they're out again tonight lends the victory a somewhat conditional quality. Defeat against Poland in Warsaw would tarnish it to a certain degree while failure to make it through the play-offs, if that's where we're heading, would knock the good out of it altogether. We still don't know whether Thursday night represented the beginning of a glorious new era or just a wonderful one-off.

I'd veer towards the former myself. Even if we don't get the win tonight which sends us through there will still be the play-offs to come and after Thursday night's victory, Ireland shouldn't fear any opposition.

Things are, in other words, looking good for qualification. And this, above all else, represents a significant personal triumph for Martin O'Neill. There is no point in begrudging the manager by suggesting that he has been lucky or that the players got us through despite rather than because of his tactics. O'Neill would have taken the rap had we failed, he deserves the lion's share of the credit should we succeed.

In the run-up to the Germany game, for example, it was suggested that for Ireland to stand a chance O'Neill would need to remove the shackles and allow the Irish players to express themselves. In fact, the shackles were tighter than ever and Ireland, as they had done in the away match against the world champions, defended deep and in depth in the belief that an opportunity would eventually present itself at the other end. It did and we took it.

O'Neill's approach to the two Germany games stands in stark contrast to Gordon Strachan's. Scotland, as Ireland were urged to do, 'went for it.' Their matches against Germany were much more entertaining than ours and they lost them, 2-1 and 3-2, and are out of the competition.

That's why suggestions that Ireland might 'go for it' tonight because a victory is required to make sure of automatic qualification are misguided. Chances are we'll play the same waiting game which paid off for us in the Germany clashes. I suspect O'Neill feels that players who wish to express themselves should do so in their spare time through the medium of sculpture and interpretative dance.

The crowd at the Aviva were magnificent. And what their reaction showed is that pious suggestions about the Irish Football Public pining for flowing, attacking football are a load of codswallop. The IFP wants a team that can win big games and doesn't worry too much about how those victories are achieved.

They're right too.

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