Wednesday 21 March 2018

Comment - Martin O'Neill's call to be brave must start with himself

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

It can be pointless reading too much into a manager's post-match comments, particularly after such a comfortable victory as the one Ireland enjoyed on Friday night, but the eagerness of Martin O'Neill to bring Robbie Brady and James McClean back into the conversation suggested a man who wanted to get a point across.

"We have some pretty decent players coming back," said O'Neill when asked if the win over Moldova had given him any selection issues for tonight's game.

"James McClean has been fantastic in this tournament and Robbie Brady is a very, very good player so it's pretty interesting for Monday now."

Chris Coleman will be expecting both to come straight back into the mix following suspension yet, while O'Neill is sometimes accused of being conservative, he has shown little fear in the past of going with the players who are in possession of the jersey, regardless of the reputation of those they have replaced.


After an insipid performance at last year's European Championships against Belgium, two stalwarts were axed for the must-win game against Italy, with John O'Shea and Glenn Whelan dropping to the bench despite the best part of 200 caps between them. Gone too were Ciaran Clark and Wes Hoolahan.

O'Neill could have played to the gallery by bringing back either O'Shea or Hoolahan for the last-16 game against France but the manager felt momentum was on the side of those who had enjoyed the buzz that went with victory in Lille.

Nobody will be telling 'I was there' stories about Friday as they were in Lille but it did, at least, break the misery from the one point from six picked up against Georgia and Serbia and allow the optimism that the country so loves to build up before a big games to flourish.

The opposition must, obviously, be factored into the equation but the performance of Callum O'Dowda was similar to the type of 'form horse' that O'Neill has backed in the past. The Bristol City man provided an intelligence of movement without the ball and good use of possession which haven't always been the hallmark of players in O'Neill's teams.

O'Dowda, it seems, is gaining the trust of O'Neill and although he is probably being ear-marked as one for the future, there was enough quality in his display on Friday night, even against Moldova, to put a thought into O'Neill's mind that he could be ready for tonight.

O'Dowda could also provide an unknown quality that Coleman won't have factored into his plans because while both McClean and Brady would feature on a list of Ireland's best 11 players, they provide a dilemma for O'Neill in terms of tactics.

O'Neill insisted last year that, despite feeling Brady could play equally well at both left-back and on the left of a three-man midfield, he didn't see him as a utility player and he since found himself in the No 10 role during the games in which he plays further forward.

McClean's role is much simpler in that he is a chalk-on-the-boots winger who gives everything to the cause but, especially if Stephen Ward is playing left-back, it limits the team's creativity and rather wedges Ireland into a traditional 4-4-2 system which O'Neill (pictured) seems to be trying to escape from.

O'Neill has always embraced the fiery side of McClean's game and trusted him to find the right balance but, in what could well amount to a winner-takes-all (or at least takes second) match, launching a fully wound-up McClean from the start is a risk O'Neill will have to contend with.

"With the intense atmosphere there, you need to play with your head and you have to play with a great deal of intensity too - and the two don't always marry," admitted O'Neill on Friday.

Goalkeeper Darren Randolph also predicted fire and fury in the Cardiff cauldron, although several his expectations of how the game will pan out don't exactly tally with the usual tactics of the Welsh under Coleman.

"The Welsh team will be the exact same as us," argued Randoph. "We are similar nations in the way we kind of fight on. We have similar styles of football."

The likes of Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey might beg to differ on that point but if O'Neill is serious in his belief that Ireland need to play with their head, then the away game against Austria must be the template from which the game-plan is based.


Ward is, arguably, playing as well as he ever has for club and country, but it was Brady who started in Vienna and provided the link from the back, through midfield with Harry Arter, and on to Hoolahan in a rare performance that didn't rely heavily on last-ditch defending to earn a result.

Trying to wedge Ward, McClean, Brady and Hoolahan into the one team, as O'Neill did at home to Serbia, leads to an imbalance, with the creative players - Hoolahan and Brady - being stifled infield, and while every conversation around Ireland seems to come back to Hoolahan, it would be a stunning decision for him not to start tonight.

If he doesn't, and the argument about a 35-year-old playing two games in four days is brought up, it will beg serious questions about why he was left on the pitch for 79 minutes against Moldova.

"I've told the players, 'This is it… this is it, so don't die wondering,'" added O'Neill after Friday's victory. "'You have to go for it'. And we will go for it."

That bravery has to start with the manager.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport