Sunday 22 October 2017

Stephen Hunt: Days off may prove a masterstroke as serious business begins for Martin O'Neill

Manager of Republic of Ireland Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Manager of Republic of Ireland Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

Like every international coach, one frustration for Martin O'Neill must be that he does not have even a small percentage of the time with his Ireland players that he would as a club manager.

For the first time in his managerial career, he only has a few days at a time to implement his ideas and get to know his squad.

It can't be easy on both sides. I don't think even the players from his Leicester City and Celtic days would pretend to know O'Neill, but the brief periods on international duty certainly don't allow much time for the player to get to understand what makes our eccentric manager tick, or vice versa.

But it works. O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane have a presence about them. I was at a game last week, and they came into the ground, took their seats, and you knew they'd come in. Necks were craning everywhere, and not many people ventured too closely.

It's the little things that O'Neill does that we hear about that clearly are noticed by the players, and have built a respect, which is being transformed into really good, solid performances on the pitch. Then there's the stuff we don't hear about. He looks after his players and I am confident going into today's game because we look like a good team under this manager.

He has so little time on the training ground to prepare for important World Cup or European Championship qualifiers. And lose a competitive game and you might lose your job.

O'Neill would love more time with his players but he recognised last week the importance of letting them get away from the camp and the pressure of this final game of the season, which could have such a massive impact on our chances of going to Russia.

This has been a long week for the players. It is a long time to be in a hotel. It is not like you are going out to the water park with the kids every day and messing by the pool. You are there to work. It will be a case of training hard, rest, training hard, rest, and keeping the mind fresh. They are long periods and encased in any hotel, anywhere in the world, it largely boils down to a week of just watching TV.

So it is important you have the opportunity to leave the group and be free for a while, especially if that is in your nature. O'Neill knows that the couple of days off he gave his players were more important than any session at Abbottstown. You don't train everyday with your club, so why should international football be any different?

I would add that hotel time also gives you ample opportunity to get to know your team-mates - their personalities, what makes them tick. There's a lot of good memories and friendships built from these times.

The focus of the squad over the last couple of days will have been the Austria game and the importance of getting a win. It is harder at this time of year for any player, when you know holidays - a break and time with the family - are just round the corner. But all the time in the hotel gives you time to organise these things and ensure you end the season on a high when the game comes.

Immediately after the excellent win over Uruguay, O'Neill was buoyant and upbeat, and that was deliberate as he was quickly setting the players' minds for today's task. We need to be on the front foot, as we were a week ago, and take the confidence from that performance into this qualifier.

As much as the result and performance did not matter, I said three goals would do perfectly against Uruguay, and a good win like that shows that these young boys can put in a dominant home performance against a world-class side to take us to the next level. You would take any win against Austria now but if this team can repeat that result and performance from last Sunday it would give them a massive lift for the rest of the campaign.

James McClean's goal was outstanding. It was a powerful strike from a player full of confidence when he's with Ireland, and on the back of being captain for the friendly against Mexico, he will come into today's game brimming with self-belief.

Jon Walters was given the armband and the responsibility for the win over Uruguay, which is a strong indication that he will start as the centre-forward today and will again lead the team out in the absence of Seamus Coleman. Although if John O'Shea is selected to start alongside Shane Duffy, I think he will be captain again.

Seamus will be in the dressing room today and around the squad. It is another smart move from the manager. It keeps Seamus involved in the World Cup campaign and will lift his spirits as he recovers, knowing what is there for him on his return. As well as offering his own words to the players today, his very presence will undoubtedly be an inspiration. Do it for Seamus and all that.

He may only have a few days with the Ireland squad, but O'Neill has shown that he becomes more intense as a campaign develops and he will be looking for a positive mindset from the players. They have shown they have the experience to cling on in big games, such as Germany and Italy, and they won't panic if they do go behind.

They are in a good place at the moment, and they will want to finish this season on a high. Going into the next set of qualifiers in September with a seven-point gap over Austria would be significant.

The noise levels will be cranked up again at the Aviva, because the crowd knows what is at stake, but it is still important to play with your brain. So when the fans are screaming at you to close down David Alaba, remember the research, remember to keep him off his left foot and on his right. If Ireland's players get little details like that right tonight, it could be the perfect end to the season.

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