Friday 22 September 2017

Steven Reid: We struggle to deal with expectations of victory

It's hard to flick a switch and dominate when you're accustomed to being the underdog

Jeff Hendrick outjumps Austria’s Zlatko Junuzovic at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday. Photo: GETTY
Jeff Hendrick outjumps Austria’s Zlatko Junuzovic at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday. Photo: GETTY
Steven Reid

Steven Reid

When you have a dressing room made up of players that are conditioned to expect adversity with their club, it's always going to be difficult to change that mindset when they play for their country.

In my view, that might explain why Irish sides can struggle in games where they are favourites. Sunday's game against Austria was a familiar story. It took the shock of going behind to really get playing. The late comeback was inspired by that underdog spirit which has been at the heart of the great Irish football stories.

We would all like it to be different. We would all have liked Ireland to go out and dominate that game and I think there are changes that could have been made to the starting team to give us a better chance.

However, when I look at the league table and see us joint top with Serbia on 12 points, my gut reaction is that we are overachieving, given the group of players that Martin O'Neill has at his disposal.

There's no easy solution to changing the mindset. The only real way to address it is with long-term development, producing youth players of quality that are able to go and play with the top clubs.

We need more players at big clubs that are used to being up there to be shot at and coping with the expectation that they should win every single game.

Harry Arter reacts to the visitors’ first-half goal. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Harry Arter reacts to the visitors’ first-half goal. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Roy Keane springs to mind because that was the norm for him. We had Duffer when he was challenging for titles at Chelsea as well. When you look around a dressing room and see those lads it gives you confidence.

Scrapping

However, if you have a team mostly comprised of lads that have spent their season scrapping to stay in the Premier League or escape from the Championship, then it's natural that they will bring that mindset with them on international duty.

Four of our starting side on Sunday play for Burnley, a club for whom every single Premier League game is a battle. I know this because I've been there. Every win is accompanied by a sense of relief; there's never any sense that it's really expected.

If that's the regular way of doing things, then it's hard to pull on a green jersey and adopt a different swagger - especially when all of your team-mates are pretty much in the same boat.

It's a subconscious thing. I've experienced it myself as a coach at Reading this year. The focus changes when you go from the position where you're chasing and playing catch-up to the point where, suddenly, you are in control. It can take a while for some individuals to cope with that position.

That said, there are tweaks that could have been made against Austria to make us more effective.

The starting system did not really work as Jon Walters was a little bit too isolated. Every time the ball went forward, the gap seemed too big between him and the midfielders.

I don't think Jeff Hendrick was suited to the role playing off him and would prefer him a little deeper, essentially in the role that Harry Arter played.

I think the role of third cog in that midfield set-up is made for Wes Hoolahan, but I could understand the manager's thinking. Maybe he wanted a more defensive and physical midfielder in there, but if Glenn Whelan is the deep-lying one, I think it's then a case of choosing between Arter and Hendrick.

I thought Robbie Brady struggled on the right. His usual quality on the ball wasn't there and I'd prefer him on the left side, but we have James McClean established there. It's strange, as teams are always looking for good left-sided players and we are blessed with options.

What we lack is similar quality on the other side. Cyrus Christie did a steady job, but this is where we really miss Seamus Coleman because he is good enough to almost act as a right winger.

Half-time was needed to regroup and to snap out of friendly mode and the lethargy that can be a factor in these end-of-season internationals. In the second-half we got back to a high-intensity game with more aggression.

Our equaliser did come from a hopeful ball forward - we lacked real creativity - but when we adopt the mentality that we're going to have a real go, so many opponents struggle to deal with it.

The way Austria finished the game means there will be regrets at letting an opportunity pass, but the group table still looks good for us with four games to go.

I watched the Serbia v Wales match and while Serbia have some great quality - Kolarov, Mitrovic, Matic and Tadic to name just four - they aren't performing near their best. I can see us winning in Georgia - narrowly - and beating Moldova at home.

The Serbia game in between is huge. If we play like we did in the second half on Sunday, I can see them finding it hard and Ireland will win the game. If we play like we did in the first-half, they'll do us.

Surprise

It's Ireland, though, and the qualifying campaigns tend to go to the wire, so it won't be a surprise if Wales on the last day is a decider.

Our character tends to shine through in that adversity. That brings me on to Kevin Long, who did fine on his competitive debut.

I wasn't expecting him to play - I fully anticipated Richard Keogh's name on the teamsheet - but I'm thrilled for Kevin because I appreciate what he's gone through.

When he did his cruciate on his Premier League debut for Burnley in 2015, I was his replacement. In the months that followed, I could genuinely tell him that I knew what he was feeling and try to reassure him. It was bloody tough for him considering he'd already waited years to be given that opportunity.

He got his head down and did his rehab right and what's impressive is that he's actually returned and surpassed the level he was at. In most cases it goes the other way. I never got back to where I was, as issues with cartilage around the knee dragged me down.

Coming back stronger is a testament to his attitude and considering the pressure on his shoulders, I thought he did well.

He's strong, he's quick, he's brave and he deserves everything he gets for working so hard to beat the odds.

That is the Irish way.

Irish Independent

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