Wednesday 22 March 2017

Steven Reid: A good night's work as O'Neill's clarity of thought shines through in the fog

We have found a team to get the job done - and we have the ability to finish it off on Monday night

Steven Reid

Steven Reid

Robbie Brady celebrates after giving Ireland the lead in last night's Euro 2016 Championship play-off first leg against Bosnia & Herzegovina in Zenica
Robbie Brady celebrates after giving Ireland the lead in last night's Euro 2016 Championship play-off first leg against Bosnia & Herzegovina in Zenica

After a night when the fog descended in Zenica, we began so see this Ireland team in a clearer light.

They're honest. They suit a 4-4-1-1 format and suit it when the odds are stacked against them. This was a good result, make no mistake about that but does it send us to France? No, Monday will determine that but you have to say we are in the driving seat. This is a 50/50 tie. It is there for us although an away goal for Bosnia on Monday would change the dynamic of this tie.

Still, in the circumstances of so many injuries and so many variables going against Ireland in the build-up to this game, this was a good night's work.

In particular, you have to look at the performances of Seamus Coleman, Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark and sing their praises.

Clark was my man of the match. Until now, his has been a stop-start career for Ireland but he did everything right last night.

He was brave, committed, and kept Dzeko quiet until that 85th-minute goal. Then there was Brady. What a goal for the kid to get except he's no longer a kid now. He has grown up.

So does this mean we have found the ideal formula? Does it mean we now know our best XI? Does O'Neill even know his best side? After 13 months and 11 games of this qualifying campaign, there have been so many changes that you had to wonder.

Willingness

He made four more from the side who lost 2-1 to Poland last month, injury and suspension the root cause of John O'Shea, Jon Walters and Shane Long's absences, O'Neill's willingness to try different things the explanation behind Stephen Ward's re-introduction at left-back, Brady's relocation to the wing, Wes Hoolahan's inclusion from the start and Daryl Murphy's selection up front.

That Hoolahan finally made it into the side for an important away game was significant - because until last night his only start on the road was in Faro against Gibraltar.

Finally, O'Neill trusted him for a big away day and he delivered to an extent, offering the side an outlet, a go-to guy, someone who could get show calmness on the ball.

Unfortunately, we didn't keep it for long enough periods, although, if I'm being honest, I never expected it to run as smoothly for Ireland as it did in that first half.

Yes, Bosnia were the superior side yet they weren't completely dictating events. Their supply lines weren't functioning that efficiently, Jeff Hendrick's positioning as a narrow right-sided midfielder serving as an insurance policy, strengthening our resolve in that middle area.

What's more, Ireland's patience really was proving to be a virtue. When long periods passed without any possession going Ireland's way, they didn't panic. Communication is such a valuable and understated quality in a player and a team. And Ireland produced it in spades last night, Ciaran Clark being the man who impressed me most, directing players into positions where they could provide a decent defensive shape for the side, ensuring the angled passes into Edin Dzeko were cut out.

And as time passed, I began to feel more comfortable. Our concentration levels were high and while we were not producing the best performance from an attacking perspective, the defensive discipline was good.

And yet, if anyone looked like getting a goal, it was Bosnia. They were dominant down our left, their right and clearly the message O'Neill had to deliver at half-time was to limit the crosses Edin Visca was delivering from their right wing.

Clearly, though, the message was not listened to.

Visca kept pressing forward, Stephen Ward kept getting isolated and the need for Robbie Brady to apply more pressure became so apparent.

There were imperfections and we know why. Think back to the team O'Neill selected for the opening game of this campaign, against Georgia in Tbilisi. David Forde was the goalkeeper; Seamus Coleman, John O'Shea, Marc Wilson and Stephen Ward were the defenders; Jon Walters, Glenn Whelan, Stephen Quinn, James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady comprised the midfield and Robbie Keane was up front.

Promoted

Now think of last night's team. Forde has given way to Darren Randolph (after Shay Given regained ownership of the jersey from the fifth to the ninth games of the campaign); Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark have jumped ahead of Wilson; Jeff Hendrick has been promoted from the bench to establish himself as a permanent fixture in the midfield; Ward has gone out, come back in and gone out of the team; Robbie Brady has alternated between defence and midfield; while Aiden McGeady, the matchwinner in Tbilisi, is now a substitute along with Robbie Keane, the captain.

Along the way there have been drastic changes; five from game one to two, Georgia to Gibraltar, three changes from there to the German fixture four days later, then five new faces in his line-up for the trip to Glasgow to play Scotland, seven changes for Poland in March, two for Scotland in June, three for Gibraltar in September, one for Georgia four days later, then four for the Germany match at home and six for the trip to Warsaw.

The same starting XI has not been retained once. Yes, injuries have been a factor and suspensions have not helped but the fact that so few players did not put their hand up to be counted was a massive factor in all those changes.

Now, though, we seem to have found a team that can get the job done. Consistent performances will inevitably lead to consistent selections.

Last night was a turning point, though. They were under pressure and they delivered a big result and did it in a hostile environment.

O'Neill's team is forging an identity for itself. It needs one or two more tweaks. We need evolution not revolution from here on in. Get that and we'll qualify for France.

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