Tuesday 27 September 2016

Steven Reid: Mediocre performances but FAI should offer Martin O'Neill a new contract now

But the campaign isn't over yet and if we get lucky in draw for the play-offs, we can reach the Euros

Published 12/10/2015 | 02:30

Robbie Keane and Jon Walters, Republic of Ireland, dejected at the final whistle. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Poland v Republic of Ireland. Stadion Narodowy, Warsaw, Poland. Picture credit: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Robbie Keane and Jon Walters, Republic of Ireland, dejected at the final whistle. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Poland v Republic of Ireland. Stadion Narodowy, Warsaw, Poland. Picture credit: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE

The performances have not impressed but the results have. And so after this strangest of campaigns, we're talking play-offs and new contracts.

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Between now and November, the FAI have to pin Martin O'Neill down to another two-year deal. He's the best man for the job, irrespective of last night's defeat, irrespective of whether we qualify for France or not.

Overall, he has delivered. That win away to Georgia. A brilliant result. We just didn't realise it at the time and only began to appreciate its significance when Scotland went there a month ago and lost. Then Germany away? Superb. And Germany last week? As good an Ireland win as there has been.

Is this enough to merit O'Neill another term? Absolutely, to use one of his favourite words. It has been a tough group - and compared to the one Northern Ireland emerged from - it has been hugely difficult.

Results across the continent have not went in Martin O'Neill's favour
Results across the continent have not went in Martin O'Neill's favour

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Yet we've got out of it to reach the play-offs where some dangerous sides lie ahead. But, given the difficulty of this group, O'Neill deserves some credit for finishing third. He has organised the team, instilled a spirit, and did reasonably well.

More to the point, who could do better? Given the finances available to the FAI, you aren't going to get the best, Mourinho, Guardiola or Klopp. O'Neill is good. The results have been okay but the performances have been mediocre.

Last night's was another case in point. We didn't pass the ball well, didn't create much and - for once - we didn't defend well, either. How do you explain this, when, just three nights previously, we kept a clean sheet against the world champions?

Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, receives medical assistance before being substituted. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Poland v Republic of Ireland. Stadion Narodowy, Warsaw, Poland. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, receives medical assistance before being substituted. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Poland v Republic of Ireland. Stadion Narodowy, Warsaw, Poland. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Partially, it was because Poland were at home and, with qualification their prize, as well as ours, the backing of a huge home support had a significant bearing on the game. So, too, did Robert Lewandowski.

Thirteen goals in this campaign, 22 goals in this season, the Polish striker is the hottest player in the world right now. And you can see why. He has it all; skill, strength, speed and that sixth sense, that awareness of where the goal is, where the ball will end up.

Lately, it's ended up in the net whenever he has touched it. Fourteen in five games prior to last night, his form has been remarkable. With this in mind, it's no surprise we conceded. What is surprising is that we defended so naively.

The first goal, stemmed from our failure to clear our lines, resulting in the corner, when our organisation was poor. Just like it was in the two games against Scotland when Shaun Maloney scored, first at Hampden, then at the Aviva.

Republic of Ireland's Richard Keogh challenges Poland's Robert Lewandowski
Republic of Ireland's Richard Keogh challenges Poland's Robert Lewandowski

If the concession of three goals from set-pieces has been a negative mark against O'Neill's stewardship, then you have to balance out that comment by the knowledge that they have conceded just seven in ten Group D games.

The bigger negative relates to his team selections. Game after game, they've changed. Another five changes came last night, Wes Hoolahan's being the most contentious. And yet, while it is a negative, in that you want to have a settled side, I am going to give him a pardon.

How many players have really excelled in this campaign? Who could say, 'you can't drop me, I've played superb?' The answer is not many, which is why there have been so many changes. The truth is O'Neill probably doesn't yet know his best XI.

And the truth is, he was right to make some alterations to his starting team last night. Séamus Coleman was back. You can't ignore that talent. James McClean was fresh, likewise Glenn Whelan, and when you consider how draining - from a physical and emotional aspect - last Thursday's game was, you can't be too critical of his decision to try something different.

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill with Poland's Robert Lewandowski
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill with Poland's Robert Lewandowski

That said, Wes Hoolahan offers something different. When you are a team which concedes possession so cheaply, you need one player who guards it jealously. That's Hoolahan. We missed him last night.

When he came on, he made a difference. That last quarter, when Aiden McGeady, Robbie Keane and Hoolahan were introduced, was so different to the first three quarters of the game.

Then it was all about Ireland holding on. It was risk-free. Poland dictated the terms of the game. We were reactive, rather than proactive.

The easy thing to ask is why weren't we so positive from the start? Yet football doesn't really supply easy answers. To play the way Ireland did in the final quarter, you leave yourself open. You are vulnerable to counter-attacks. In terms of the energy required to play at that intensity, there is a reality that you can only do it for a certain period of time.

So while there must be regrets that Ireland didn't seize the initiative earlier, there also has to be the understanding that in a game of football between two teams of equal measure, the home team will, inevitably, have their period of dominance.

Significantly, when you get a period of dominance in these games, you have to take your chances. Poland did. They finished their chances well, even if Ireland contributed to their own downfall.

Yet when we were on top, we just didn't create enough. We didn't have the players. The one great chance we did have - which fell for Richard Keogh - should have been taken. That, ultimately, was the difference between the sides. Poland's headed chance fell to Lewandowski, the form striker in Europe, who plays for Bayern Munich, who is worth about €70m. Our headed chance fell to Richard Keogh, who plays for Derby County, who is a centre-back, who is worth considerably less.

We needed that goal. It would have put us through.

Now it's the play-offs and there are no guarantees. Plus, for the first leg there is no John O'Shea or Jon Walters, our two mainstays from this campaign. They will be missed. Has our chance gone? No.

Remember after drawing with Scotland at the Aviva? Would you have taken a play-off spot then? Absolutely. It isn't over yet and if we are to make it through the play-offs then we probably have to get lucky, not just with the draw, but also in the games.

The reality is we don't have a Lewandowski or a Gareth Bale. What we do have is a great spirit. hat was enough to finish third but not second.

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