Wednesday 26 July 2017

Stephen Hunt: You don't need to be playing well for your club in order to stand out for your country

Jason McAteer
Jason McAteer
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

If you were to properly lay it out - regardless of whatever else is happening in the world - there probably haven't been too many years in Irish football history as good as 2016, even from the really great times. The fact that we moved up 10 places in the Fifa world rankings announced last week is a nice little sign-off. It reflects how the team have built on the genuine success of Euro 2016, following up qualification for the last 16 in France with one of our best ever starts to a campaign and one of our best ever away wins two weeks ago against Austria.

There's also the fact that so many of the players are in good form. You can go right through the team and most of them are playing well or in positive situations right now.

It's almost a pity that it's four months until the Wales game, because you never know what will change in the meantime; whether anyone will drop off and all that.

But that got me thinking about something that has usually been a positive for Ireland, and also one of the genuine curiosities of the game. Right through our recent history, some of our best-­performing players have been those who haven't actually been at their best for their clubs. One of our greatest moments, Jason McAteer's goal against Holland, came when he was struggling to get into the Blackburn Rovers team.

It's one of those things that shouldn't really make sense. How is it that a player can be in completely different form for his country to that he shows with his club? And it works both ways, good and bad.

I experienced it myself and it got me thinking a lot about the mechanics and psychology of it. I used to wonder about it while I was playing. Why can't you bring one career to another?

The best way I can put it is that, in terms of replicating a performance, it's like making a cake. You're doing the same things you always do, following the instructions, but the ingredients are different. The player behind you is different. The player to the side of you is different. The whole framework is different.

So, even if you're making a small movement, like the tempo of a pass, if you are comfortable with the player you're sending it to, you know exactly how to play that ball - at what pace and where. The logistics are totally different straight away then. All those little elements add up, too.

That's not an excuse, of course, since it works both ways. And, if you're playing badly for your club, then, more simply, you're just in a different environment psychologically. That alone can make some difference. It's that freshness, that relief at getting away from any everyday football issues.

With a lot of players who have specifically raised their game for Ireland, however, I think there has often been a feel-good factor too.

My first few caps were probably fired by that, as well as - admittedly - the momentum of my club career. I made my debut in 2007 when things were going so well at Reading, and it just carried right through. You're on that much of a high about it all that you go straight into it. In fact, of the 39 caps I got for Ireland, the first two were probably the only games where I played for myself. It was just the natural consequence of the trajectory of my career at the time.

Once you come down off that high of the first few caps, though, it's 'what's next?'; 'what can I do for the team?'.

Then I certainly wasn't playing for myself. I was listening to the manager, wanting to know what he wanted from me for the team.

That's why a lot of this whole issue actually comes down to team-building in international football; to getting the response required from players regardless of what is happening elsewhere. That's the challenge. Can you get the 11 players playing as a collective, but one that brings out their different individual talents - and in very short spaces of time. It's very difficult to generate that rhythm.

Martin O'Neill has managed it, and so did Giovanni Trapattoni. Trap, in fact, showed that it can come pretty quickly. He was able to do that because his style wasn't expansive. It was easy to follow.

I actually found that, when I turned up for Ireland, I turned into a robot to a certain degree. And I mean that in a good way, in the sense that, no matter what else was happening in my game, I would immediately slip into the role required, the instructions I had to follow.

O'Neill seems to have got the same response. He's more of a man-manager than a tactical one, and keeps his instructions simple. He has got that rhythm.

So, the question now - and one that will linger under the surface until the next match and be influenced by every event, every deviation in form - is whether the side can maintain that rhythm. The last 12 months, after all, will look even better if we can build on them in 2017.

I wouldn't worry about that four-month break, though. It is what it is, and the team still have the perfect foundation to build on.

I also wouldn't think too much about any news from Real Madrid about Gareth Bale for that first fixture back against Wales. It was announced last week that he could be out for four months, but I'm willing to bet he will be fit before then. You can see it in his character, as much as anything.

With some players, they're always late back, because they use the injury to take it easier on holiday or whatever. Not him. He could even be fresher by then, and that could be dangerous.

We just have to make sure we pose the same threat, and that the team stays on the same form - regardless of anything else.

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