Tuesday 20 March 2018

Martin O'Neill's men have no more get-out clauses

It's win or bust for Ireland when they meet Scotland in June, writes Dion Fanning

Martin O'Neill: 'We go and try and win it and try and create something in the game because the onus is on us at home to create.'
Martin O'Neill: 'We go and try and win it and try and create something in the game because the onus is on us at home to create.'

Dion Fanning

In the hour after last Sunday's game against Poland, Martin O'Neill looked ahead to Ireland's encounter with Scotland and regretted that it couldn't happen immediately.

"I'd love to be playing Scotland tomorrow night," Ireland's manager said immediately after the game.

Instead, he must wait another couple of months. International football has always been a frustration for a manager but the current fractured calendar means it is even harder to develop a rhythm for his side.

O'Neill would probably have loved another half an hour against Poland after a second half which looked particularly impressive in contrast to the first.

It may turn out that the 45 minutes that ended with Shane Long's equaliser will be seen as the starting point for O'Neill's team if they go on to beat Scotland in June.

If it is the beginning of something encouraging, then the previous games when Ireland played as little football as they did in the first half against Poland will be forgotten.

O'Neill referred several times on Sunday night to the "tentative" opening Ireland had made to the game. As a result of Poland pressure, Ireland played the long ball too often in the manager's view.

In that period, Ireland looked more like the team that had played in Scotland but the second half demonstrated what the manager wants from them. O'Neill felt Ireland had "absolutely gone for it" in the second half but some of that was down to Poland retreating. When Shane Long equalised, Poland showed glimpses of their earlier ambition, and the idea that Ireland would definitely have gone on to win the game if they had scored earlier remains both debatable and unprovable.

They had, at least, remained in contention in the group and it would have been a grim six months for O'Neill and the FAI if Long hadn't scored. Instead, they must beat Scotland in Dublin, even if that will be another test for the Irish side.

Before the Poland game, O'Neill was careful not to say that Ireland needed to win but there are unlikely to be any further get-out clauses.

"I would not minimise the importance of the match against Scotland. It's really, really important for us to win that game," O'Neill said.

Ireland might be most likely to win if they took the lead in injury time because they are always vulnerable to a defensive mistake when the pressure is on. Under O'Neill, Ireland at least have a more positive approach.

"We don't set out with an attitude of 'Let's hang on to it'," O'Neill said. "You couldn't possibly imagine that from the team that was picked. We go and try and win it and try and create something in the game because the onus is on us at home to create. When you're knocked back, it takes a bit of courage and determination to fight back. I thought we showed that in the second half."

Liam Brady's comments about James McCarthy and his passion weren't as important as his observations about the decline of the Irish footballer.

Last Sunday, Wes Hoolahan demonstrated that he offers a solution in the present and if he is given a sustained run in the side then his influence will also increase.

For some reason, a player who wins the ball back and loses it again so he can win it back once more will always be more valued by a certain type of coach than a footballer like Hoolahan who can make something happen but, occasionally, loses the ball doing so.

The idea that because a few of his club managers have not always used him there was also mentioned by Brady. Conventional wisdom is damaging in any industry and football is not immune to it.

Neil Francis touched upon this subject last week when he said there were no innovators in rugby coaching. There aren't many in football either and most coaches are driven by fear.

Hoolahan is easy to scapegoat but it was to O'Neill's credit that he made changes which allowed him to get more into the game.

If Ireland are to beat Scotland in June, they'll need Hoolahan to be fit because he is Ireland's main source of creativity.

McCarthy looks like being a different problem with Roberto Martinez defending him again last week. The idea of 'passion' is an abstract and meaningless one but McCarthy was a spectator in the first half and, perhaps, he was considered to have had a better second half because of the low expectations he set in the first.

McCarthy rejected the idea that he wasn't committed to Ireland, when questioned after the game.

"I think it's a daft question to be honest, what you're asking me. I've always been committed. I think you're trying to get a headline from nothing, but you're not going to get anything from me. I've been committed since day one, and I'll keep committed.

"It's people talking, it doesn't bother me, it's one of them things. I'm not going to get caught up in it. If people want to say stuff they can say stuff. As long as I'm doing what I have to do on the pitch, I'm happy. It's never gotten under my skin, I'm happy to be playing football and I'm happy to be playing for Ireland."

Happiness, too, can be an abstract concept and, sometimes, it's impossible to detect.

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