Monday 18 December 2017

Experimentation key to our future

Fringe players must be given chance to shine in the months ahead, writes Richard Sadlier

It's done. Ireland will be competing in next summer's European Championship. Tuesday's second leg will be a night of celebration and back-slapping, which really is a remarkable achievement. There is no way this Irish defence will capitulate to such an extent that a four-goal lead will be overturned, nor will the Estonians keep a clean sheet, so plans for the finals can commence.

Without wishing to appear dismissive of this achievement, the focus must now turn to the months ahead and how best to prepare for next summer's tournament. The consistency of selection by Giovanni Trapattoni has ultimately served him well throughout the group, but the opportunity is now there to introduce those who can add an extra dimension to a predictable approach.

Recent opponents have repeatedly pointed to the one-dimensional style, so it would not be unreasonable to assume this Irish team would be one other countries will hope to be drawn against in the finals.

The criticism aimed at the manager in recent times has centred on his reluctance to show flexibility in times when it appeared necessary. The forthcoming friendlies can change all that. There will be talk of maintaining momentum and galvanising an already united team, while he will want to preserve the impressive unbeaten run and defensive record. But to use those games for anything other than experimentation would miss the point altogether. Despite the hype that accompanies every game at this level, results in international friendlies really don't matter.

In the build-up to Ireland's last appearance in a major tournament in 2002, I was one of the players given a chance to see if I was good enough to break into the squad for the finals. I was told I would be called up for all the friendlies, but injury limited my involvement to just one. Trapattoni would do well to offer the same opportunity to some of the fringe players. Tell them they have a few games to show whether they have a role to play in the finals.

There is nothing new to be learned from throwing more caps at the senior players, so introducing the likes of James McCarthy, Wes Hoolahan, or Seamus Coleman could be done at little cost. I am not suggesting they are more deserving of caps than those who have played throughout this campaign, but increasing the competition for places in the squad can only be a positive. But unless others are ruled out through injury, they would have to make an almighty impression to force their way into the final squad of 23 for Poland and Ukraine.

The best response to criticism of recent performances or the tactical approach of the manager throughout the group would be to suggest there is an element of delusion among those of us who believe there is a better way for this group of players to set up. We have only seen this team play one way so it is as yet an untested theory. Come the summer, we should be in a position to say for sure.

When everyone is available, the same players are selected and told to follow the original instructions.

I am not proposing a total abandonment of what has brought the team this far, rather developing it further in terms of both personnel and approach. There will be games during the summer when a long-ball style won't suffice. There will be times when keeping possession of the ball will be called for. There will be players who can do a lot of damage if afforded the same space that our current midfield set-up can present. To keep it in the context of the campaign so far, the quality of opponent in the finals will test this team the way the Russians did recently.

Of course, this will delight those who believe Ireland perform at their best when faced with superior opposition (and there appear to be many of you out there), but to those of us still searching for enough examples to support this, it is more than a minor concern.

With qualification now assured, the Irish public will unite in their praise of this squad and get behind the players once again. They have done their bit to lift the nation's gloom, offering much-needed distraction from the issues which affect us most. The fans who booed them during the Armenia game or those who opted to stay at home will now turn out in force on Tuesday to join the party. I'm sure some of the players will acknowledge them through gritted teeth, but there is little point now in any of them highlighting such fickleness.

If this Irish team is uncomfortable playing under an expectation of success, then it has 48 hours in which to overcome it. The crowd will be there to see a show on Tuesday.

All those who have stuck by this team throughout this campaign certainly deserve it.

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