Friday 22 September 2017

O'Neill's glass half-full as Arter makes his point

Harry Arter marshalling the Irish midfield against Uruguay yesterday. Photo: Reuters / Clodagh Kilcoyne
Harry Arter marshalling the Irish midfield against Uruguay yesterday. Photo: Reuters / Clodagh Kilcoyne
David Kelly

David Kelly

Back to basics, then.

At times during one of the oddest weeks of his 27 years in management, Martin O'Neill was about as comfortable as a man of his age suddenly deciding to sashay around, sockless, in a pair of Canvas Allstars with purple chinos.

Quite apart from being discommoded by bringing a raggle-taggle conglomerate across the Atlantic to a potholed pitch, being suddenly persuaded to abandon the comfort blanket of his preferred defensive formation would have compounded his anxiety.

Just as well the entire exercise was discreetly veiled by an inhospitable kick-off time on pay-per-view TV on this side of the water.

On a still evening in Dublin 4 before a polite and moderate attendance, O'Neill seemed glad to be encased once more in familiar surroundings and reassurance of a team line-up moulded in his self-possessed image.

While there may have been relief at renewing himself and his team to familiar ideals - the players themselves admire a degree of certainty when all have so little time together - there remained some conjecture as to the identity of some who will fulfil the roles against Austria next Sunday.

Greenhorn

The full-backs were automatic choices but, with a greenhorn, albeit in professional soccer terms a middle-aged one, partnering the often erratic Shane Duffy at centre-back, the two men who didn't start, John O'Shea and Richard Keogh, may seem more likely options.

The relatively unenthusiastic status of Uruguay's efforts hardly challenged the Irish duo's preparedness. They are on the Riviera midweek and it seemed like they were already there.

Occupied with an even more intense game of Russian roulette within their own perennially fiery continental qualification process, their main draw for Irish fans so eager to see the stars - as the recent impromptu sell-outs for Liverpool and Man Utd demonstrate - Edinson Cavani, typified their approach.

Ironically, another mistake from an equally error-prone Irishman, Darren Randolph, eased him on his way; as the free-scoring PSG man stretched to seize upon a poor pass, a temporary twitch of a muscle was enough to confirm the futility of remaining.

And so in the 11th minute, the number 11 departed; hardly choreographed, as is the latest fashion, but no less convenient for all that. His team sensed in his removal an invitation to languid indifference.

Ireland slowly found a balance between their innate impatience whereby the ball is delivered north as soon as possible by settling into an easy enough rhythm of possession which, given their recent inaction ahead of such vital combat in just six days, was much-needed.

All the while, another newcomer, Aberdeen's Johnny Hayes, flitted up and down, and in and out, on a ceaseless rampage to get involved.

But any time he was found he was in difficult positions and he lost control. When he did find a prairie to roam, his team-mates couldn't find him. On the right, Robbie Brady and Cyrus Christie shared attacking instincts but defensive frailties. Harry Arter was very bright but, with Jeff Hendrick again struggling for impact, initially in a position that Wes Hoolahan best occupies, the Bournemouth man can prosper.

In the absence of Long, the slow bicycle race to determine who should offer the option nearer the opposition goal was hardly being conducted with violent or passionate debate.

This is not a new debate but, somehow, even during the dwindling days of the Keane era, Ireland can often muddle through and last night proved it once more.

Jonathan Walters, talisman of the Euro 2016 campaign, provided enough evidence within ten minutes that he should be the one to lead the line, producing a sumptuous curling finish worthy of either Cavani or his absent tango partner Luis Suarez, albeit contriving to produce a howler from a couple of yards in front of an open goal.

In between times, the second of two needless free-kicks gifted the visitors a scarcely-deserved equaliser; Darren Randolph's weeks of inaction exposed by a horrendous error.

As if while trying to clean his gutter only to see his ladder collapse beneath him, Randolph came to punch clear but was left in no-man's land as the shoulder of Jose Gimenez confirmed the hapless concession.

Uruguay would dominate until Walters' own faux pas, Ireland cowed by their sudden frailties. Keiron Westwood's performance was convincing but one senses O'Neill may not share his enthusiasm but that time may soon come.

Ireland were more effective in the middle third once Christie nudged his side ahead, Hoolahan adding a splash of colour before the steady streams of substitutes reminded one of the nature of this sporting beast.

Not that James McClean ever discerns a difference. Now a defiant symbol of this Irish side's indifference to their perceived status, his arrival electrified the arena, a typical slashing run and shot a determined argument that this team remain utterly implacable.

And a reminder that, with so many firm characters in their midst, Ireland can offer a little more dimension to their football these days.

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