Tuesday 27 June 2017

Ireland v Northern Ireland friendly: Closed doors match a logical solution to lengthy break

A general view of the spectators during the game between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Carling Four Nations Tournament, Republic of Ireland v Northern Ireland, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
A general view of the spectators during the game between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Carling Four Nations Tournament, Republic of Ireland v Northern Ireland, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Michael O’Neill’s appointment has tied in with increased efforts to keep hold of players who have started off their journey under the IFA’s stewardship
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

When Martin O'Neill was in Dublin the week before last, the exceptional performances of Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland were raised in the course of his press conference.

He was effusive in his praise of his counterpart who is a couple of good results away from bringing the small country back to the major tournament stage, an achievement that the elder O'Neill would respect given that he was the skipper of Billy Bingham's side that punched above their weight in the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

The Derryman could not resist adding, with a smile, that the draw had been slightly kinder to the team that he represented with distinction.

Before the groups were drawn, the newly-appointed Republic boss was reluctant to get dragged into discussing the possibility of an emotive clash with our northern neighbours.

The two associations have had a strained relationship in recent years due to the FAI's recruitment of players such as Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and James McClean who were initially part of the northern system.

Yesterday's announcement that their senior teams will meet in a behind-closed-doors friendly at the Aviva Stadium on June 4 is indicative of improved relations.

Ireland's Shane Long, 9, celebrates with team-mates Wesley Hoolahan, left, and James McClean after scoring his side's equalising goal. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Poland. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Shane Long, 9, celebrates with team-mates Wesley Hoolahan, left, and James McClean after scoring his side's equalising goal. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Poland. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Michael O'Neill's appointment has tied in with increased efforts to keep hold of players who have started off their journey under the IFA's stewardship. And the Abbotstown hierarchy are now largely concentrating their efforts on seeing who is eligible across the water.

Therefore, it's easy to see the logic of what Martin O'Neill describes as a 'mutually beneficial' exercise in the Aviva on Thursday, June 4 that will serve as a warm-up for important qualifiers nine days later.

Fans of both sides would be keen to see the outcome of a match-up given that the appointment of the former Shamrock Rovers supremo has brought about serious improvement.

Nigel Worthington, a considerably inferior manager, was in charge for Northern Ireland's last visit to the Aviva in 2011 for the ill-fated Carling Nations Cup. Their showdown with the south finished in a 5-0 drubbing.

It would certainly be stretching it to describe the summer exercise as any form of rematch because what the managers are speaking about is a game for the benefit of fringe squad members in need of intensive minutes on the pitch.

Martin O'Neill has yet to decide when he will ask the available members of his panel to report for duty for the official friendly with England on June 7 and the all-important Scottish qualifier on June 13.

The Premier League season finishes on May 24 and his top flight players are likely to be given a break to recharge the batteries, yet it's possible that his Championship representatives will be brought in for some training towards the end of the month.

Their season finishes this weekend unless they are involved in the play-offs, a likely scenario for his contingents at Derby and Ipswich in addition to Norwich's Wes Hoolahan, the only Championship starter in last month's draw with Poland.

But he had spoken about adding something else to the programme for the benefit of those lads who finish up on May 2.

The last behind-closed-doors match involving the senior squad is remembered for the wrong reasons as Shane Duffy almost lost his life in 2010 following an accidental collision in the Malahide meeting with Gerry Smith's Irish amateur side.

O'Neill had floated the possibility of looking for a similar level of opponent with League of Ireland options off the agenda because they are mid-season.

However, the availability of another international side in close proximity opened up a more attractive solution to the problem of the lengthy break. Ironically enough, McClean is certain to figure as he is suspended for Wigan's final game of the season against Brentford.

Like his manager, he would doubtless prefer a low-key soiree without awkward questions. The unofficial status, which allows subs to roll on and off in addition to other experiments, means that the result will be irrelevant.

"It represents an ideal opportunity to build the intensity of our preparations, leading into the England friendly, and before the important qualifier against Scotland," said O'Neill.

With no anthems or fanfare, the northern affair will be a very different kind of derby.

Irish Independent

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