Steven Reid: I'm a believer in Martin O'Neill and the unexpected
Published 04/09/2015 | 02:30
It is nearly two years since his job started, 12 months since this campaign began. And here he is, in Faro, under the Algarve sun, the qualification dream still alive. Just about.
I'm a believer, not just in Martin O'Neill but in the unexpected. Once, when I was a younger man, I was told I'd never play again. I did. Now I'm told Ireland can't qualify for France. They can.
Yet if it is to happen then two significant things have to follow - firstly that results from Scotland and Poland's remaining games go our way and, secondly, that someone, somewhere in this Irish team puts their hand up and asks, 'Can I take responsibility for this campaign, gaffer?'
In football, you can always blame the manager when things go wrong and O'Neill has been on the wrong end of the flak for some time. After two years, you'd think he would know his best team by now but I'm not 100 per cent sure he does.
Look at the six qualifiers so far. At the start, David Forde was the first-choice goalkeeper, Stephen Ward the favoured left-back, Stephen Quinn the midfielder elected to do a job in Georgia, Robbie Keane, the number one striker.
Forde has since lost out to Given, Ward to Robbie Brady, Quinn to Jeff Hendrick and Wes Hoolahan, Keane to Shane Long and then Daryl Murphy. Injuries too have disrupted selection. Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Hoolahan, Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson, Glenn Whelan and Aiden McGeady have all had them - meaning there has never been consistency in selection.
From day one of this campaign to now, he has changed his goalkeeper, his full-backs, his centre-back, his midfield, his wingers, his attack and also his formation, either by choice or because of injuries.
Has it had an effect? No doubt. Is O'Neill to blame for this? For me, the responsibility lies with the players. None of them have seized the initiative and demanded a place in the side by playing so outstandingly well that you are left to say, 'Martin O'Neill, you are a fool to leave him out'.
Yes, we have seen patches of form - from McGeady in Georgia, John O'Shea in Germany, Hoolahan whenever he has been picked. Brady's promotion has been a gamble that has paid off and if he had to relocate from full-back to the wing, no one would grumble.
But has it been enough? Two wins - over the group's two minnows, followed by a failure to beat Germany, Poland or Scotland - says it hasn't. If we want consistent selections, then it is up to the players to provide consistent performances.
Yet they haven't.
Now they must. Four games remain, ten points are needed. That means winning tonight, following this up with a victory over Georgia on Monday and then finding a way, somehow, to draw again against Germany and beat Poland. Can it happen? Yes. But will this happen?
That is a different question.
The questions posed by Gibraltar tonight will be easy ones. Forget what Roy Keane said about football not offering up gimmes anymore. They still exist. And Gibraltar are proof of that.
Georgia, too, aren't up to much. 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.
So chalk six points up on the board and if - for whatever reason - Ireland don't beat Gibraltar then they don't deserve to qualify.
If this is the team's last chance, then the same can be said about Darron Gibson.
He made a serious mistake last month and has been punished for it, having pleaded guilty on Tuesday to driving with excess alcohol, driving without due care and attention and failing to stop after an accident. He was foolish and has acknowledged as much. Does he deserve a second chance? Absolutely.
I have seen incidents like this so often in football when a light bulb finally flashes in front of a player's eyes and they react positively to a negative moment. That is what Gibson has to do now because time isn't always going to be on his side.
He's 27 so a future lies ahead. But it is time he made his mark. At his age, he should have played at least 200 games at club level, a lad with his ability. Yet his figures are embarrassing.
Gibson is ten days younger than Jonny Evans. They both joined Manchester United at the same time, Gibson making his debut 10 years ago next month against Barnet. They won 4-1.
That should have been the launchpad for his career. So should have been the day he played at Wembley and won the League Cup. But it didn't happen for him. He moved to Everton and while he started promisingly, it hasn't happened for him there, either.
He is 27. So is Evans. He has started 99 club games in his career; Evans has started 214, 179 for United. Can you say he has more talent than Darron? No. But he has made the most of it. That is what Darron needs to do now.