Monday 18 November 2019

O'Neill summons old underdog spirit

Ireland look to draw strength from squad unity for daunting clash with in-form world champions

There was a moment towards the end of the pre-match press conference for tonight's encounter with Germany where the tone of Martin O'Neill's voice noticeably changed.

He had just finished a nostalgic reflection on his own playing days with a Northern Ireland group that had to battle hard for every single point.

Games with Germany are generally accompanied by predictable platitudes from the opposition camp about the fighting Irish, and the build-up to this Euro 2016 qualifier has stuck to the script. O'Neill was essentially asked if this clichéd perception really was the greatest strength that Irish teams possess.

"That is part of the culture," he said, without disagreeing. "Northern Ireland was exactly the same. I remember looking across the border and seeing Brady, Stapleton, some really fine players and despite that, it seemed from a distance, that they didn't possess the same team spirit we had. Things have changed since then, with Jack Charlton coming in, and Mick McCarthy.


"We've always had to fight for everything. Will it remain like that for 50 to 60 years? I don't know but until it does change, we'll have to fight for it."

On the good days, the successful application of that underdog mentality has worked in tandem with a belief around the ground that reflected the mood of the nation. For a variety of reasons, that confidence has gradually ebbed away over the last decade.

This Thursday date has crept up in the shadows of a hectic weekend of club football and the interminable Rugby World Cup, and the week has been devoid of the old-school big-game fever.

With a full-house in the stadium, that should change as kick-off approaches, despite the fact that injury issues have steepened the gradient of the daunting task facing O'Neill's side. Still, there was a sense that the Irish boss was aware of the need to tackle the subdued mood.

"I think I might as well sum this up," he said. "We've got two very, very difficult games coming up. We're playing the world champions, players who are playing Champions League football on a regular basis, players who have won a World Cup, players who have the experience of going away from home and dealing with any given situation and they're improving.

"Does that mean we just give up? Absolutely not. We're going to show a bit of fighting spirit and a bit of ability and a bit of self-belief. The Germans are very, very good. I think they enjoyed almost 400 more passes than Scotland (last month) and Scotland were at home. Does that mean it's impossible? Absolutely not. Spirit alone won't win you football matches, but it does help in a predicament."

Should Ireland manage to win, an outcome that would transform the image of this side, they will be assured of third in Group D and go to Poland with a chance of automatic progression.

Only an avowed optimism would consider that a realistic scenario, though, and with O'Neill acknowledging that he would take a play-off spot now, the real goal tonight is to match Scotland's points total from the visit of Poland to Hampden Park. Therefore, if the Scots succeed in posing problems for Robert Lewandowski and pals, Ireland will need to pull something out of the bag.

The bizarre flip side of the equation is that a pair of defeats for the Celtic neighbours would ensure O'Neill achieves his target and render Sunday's game in Warsaw completely meaningless with the hosts ensured of a place in France and the visitors concentrated on avoiding suspensions and needless injuries. Seamus Coleman and Marc Wilson are trying their best to make that trip with O'Neill sure the Everton man will be fine, but the priorities would change if the finale became a dead rubber.

Permutations tend to open the mind to a world of scenarios that never come to pass, and, naturally, the message from the Irish camp is that they are solely focused on their own task.

It's believable that the vast majority will be plugged into that mindset. Earlier this week, a player was clearly puzzled when asked if he'd be keeping an ear out for scores from Hampden. He wondered aloud this was a reference to the rugby.

With a patched-up team, it's stating the obvious to point out that Ireland's concentration levels will have to reach a peak to contain a German operation that has regained the sharpness which was noticeably absent in Gelsenkirchen 12 months ago.

They ran riot in the Aviva three years ago, capitalising on the hesitancy of an experimental Giovanni Trapattoni selection to deliver a prime example of why away sides have enjoyed their trips to the renovated Lansdowne.

In contrast to their 2007 journey to Croke Park, an encounter where they sat off to claim the point they required for qualification, the Germans refused to allow the green shirts to relax. For this crop, attack is the best form of defence and with Muller, Ozil, Gundogan and Gotze to the forefront that is unsurprising.


O'Neill insists that the natives will set out with the intention of causing damage as opposed to shutting up shop. He gave little away about his chosen team, other than hinting that Cyrus Christie will take Coleman's place and that the challenge will come too soon for Darron Gibson to plug a midfield gap from the outset.

Wes Hoolahan is fit and a plausible set-up would involve the attacking schemer operating in a deeper role than the versatile Shane Long and Jonathan Walters who can both function as stand-in wingers. The need for pace on the counter and an interrupted preparation counts against Robbie Keane's prospects. Daryl Murphy, who missed the wins over Gibraltar and Georgia last month, is a wild-card contender.

Jeff Hendrick was the only Championship starter against the Georgians; the quota will increase here with Richard Keogh or Paul McShane next to John O'Shea and David Meyler a possible engine room deputy if the same shape is retained.

"We're going to have to play without the ball," O'Neill acknowledged, "But we will get chances in the game, there's no doubt about it.

"We have a challenge on our hands and I think we have the desire to deal with it. Are we ready? Yes."

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