Richard Sadlier: It's up to the Irish players not to have a blow-out before Scotland game
As season ends, players must show right attitude to be prepared for Scots, writes Richard Sadlier
When the league finishes, the holidays start. It was that way when I played and it's the same for most players today.
Sure, fitness programmes might be handed out, but the focus for players is primarily to get away from it all. You could have given me all the dietary suggestions you liked at the time, but my only thought was to let loose once I knew I was done with training and competitive games. I began relaxing as best, and as enthusiastically, as I could.
With five weeks still to go until the Scotland game, Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill will be hoping for a different approach from his players.
International football managers have little influence on so many crucial aspects of their job. Their players are coached throughout the year by someone else. Their fitness levels are built up and monitored by someone else. The vast majority of injuries sustained happen while playing for someone else. In the build-up to squad get-togethers, an international manager just hopes his players get through their other commitments unscathed in order to arrive match-fit and injury-free.
O'Neill's players have a variety of matters to tend to between now and the England and Scotland double-header next month. Wes Hoolahan, for example, is still chasing promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs. His season will last at least one more week. John O'Shea, along with a number of players at Hull City, Aston Villa and Burnley, is still involved in the battle to avoid going in the opposite direction. The Premier League has a fortnight still to go, but not everyone in the Ireland squad will be playing until then.
Derby County's Irish contingent are coming to terms with their failure to make the play-offs last weekend. Their season is over. New recruit Harry Arter has Bournemouth's Championship title and promotion to the Premier League to celebrate. Others, like James McClean and David Forde, having both been relegated from the Championship with Wigan and Millwall respectively, are probably already looking for new clubs. After all, international careers don't generally flourish for players in League One.
In addition to all of that, those players will have to maintain a high level of fitness. They'll have access to their club facilities, obviously, and they'll probably be given a training programme, just as I was years ago, but their readiness for Ireland's June fixtures will depend almost entirely on their attitude and professionalism. Yet another area beyond the control of O'Neill and his staff.
It would be nice to think all players realise the importance of rest and recovery and that the importance of the Scotland result is enough to keep them focused. Surely there is too much at stake for them to even contemplate a blow-out in the meantime? Grasping the importance of rest and recovery is one thing, however, deciding how best to achieve it is where players can run into trouble.
It's not an ideal situation, but O'Neill's options are limited. It's not possible to bring the players in for the month of May to keep them in full training. Even if it was, it wouldn't be the wise thing to do. As Stephen Hunt wrote on these pages recently about the build-up to the Euro 2012 finals, having a squad together for an extended period can actually undermine preparations. It may be hard for supporters to grasp how you could possibly get bored playing for your country, but training every day is not a novelty for international footballers. Staying in hotels away from your family is not a treat either. After a long season of club football, it's probably the last thing on a player's mind, so O'Neill's only option is to leave the players to look after themselves.
There are obvious pitfalls in playing friendlies before qualifiers, but there is too much money to be made from the England fixture to complain about the timing. In any case, it's the most competitive non-competitive game Ireland could have organised, which could make it the ideal fixture for some players after the long break. And arranging the Northern Ireland fixture to be played behind closed doors on June 4 means O'Neill can use as many players as he likes to help them regain some sharpness. It could be badly needed.
As with any job, there are upsides to having some time off. The extended rest could give the players a timely break from the pressures of club football and allow for some recovery of minor injuries. Obviously this only applies to a handful of players from the overall squad, but the margins between victory and defeat against Scotland are very tight. It's not a fixture where Ireland can afford to be carrying anyone. How the players spend the next few weeks could be the thing that makes all the difference.
Sunday Indo Sport