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Steven Reid: Ireland need players who won't be intimidated by Tbilisi's 'Welcome to Hell'

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Manchester United and Eric Cantona were met by an intimidating atmosphere when they played Galatasary in 1993.  However Steven Reid believes Ireland will thrive in such surroundings in Tbilisi.  Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

Manchester United and Eric Cantona were met by an intimidating atmosphere when they played Galatasary in 1993. However Steven Reid believes Ireland will thrive in such surroundings in Tbilisi. Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

Getty Images

Manchester United and Eric Cantona were met by an intimidating atmosphere when they played Galatasary in 1993. However Steven Reid believes Ireland will thrive in such surroundings in Tbilisi. Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

'Welcome to Hell."

I remember the banner. I remember seeing the look on Eric Cantona's face as he passed by it in Istanbul Airport before Manchester United's Champions League game against Galatasaray.

Would the atmosphere play a part? Could it? Well it must have done. United were held scoreless, Cantona sent off after the final whistle and that night in 1993 their European dream came to an end.

Those words stuck with me as I went from being a teenage football fan to a teenager footballer. At 17, I got my own welcome to hell. I had barely started shaving and was thrown into a tough encounter at Maine Road.

Right in front of the old Kippax Stand, the ball went out for a throw-in. Innocently, I went to collect it when two grown men left their seats to come right up to the advertising hoardings and scream abuse right into my face. Whatever way I reacted must have amused them because they started laughing. Hatred turned to hilarity. They'd done their job. They'd spooked me. We lost 4-0 that night and I remember sitting on the bus home afterwards wondering if I was ready for this sort of thing.

These days I love those kind of games. I'm 33 now and raging against the dying of the light. Last weekend, Manchester United came to Burnley and the crowd roared from an hour before the kick-off until the final whistle. We'd win a throw-in and a scream would go up from the back of the stand and move its way down to the pitch.

They brought me on as a sub for the last few minutes and I ran around like a 17-year-old, hyped by the noise of the place. Yes, it's a cliché, but when the crowd is on your back, they are the 12th man.

I've seen both sides of it. In the 2002 World Cup, we went half-way around the world and every game felt like a home one. Is it coincidence we came from behind to score second-half equalisers against Cameroon, Germany and Spain, or that we got two late goals against Saudi Arabia in that tournament?

I'll tell you it wasn't. I was on the pitch against Germany. Earlier this week, I googled that match and watched it again, and when I heard our fans sing 'The Fields of Athenry', it once again got me buzzing . . . on a Wednesday afternoon, 12 years after the game. Our fans got us a draw that night.

And that is the influence crowds can have on a result. They can make you or break you. You need to be mentally strong to deal with them. You need to be able to stand in the tunnel before the match and block everything else out.

I learned the hard way. From that chastening experience at City, I went with Ireland to Tehran in 2001 for the World Cup play-off decider. You could say the atmosphere was hostile there but I loved it because I was older and because by that stage, I was getting a buzz from big occasions.

Martin O'Neill needs players who'll thrive in that atmosphere, who will be buzzing from the knowledge that they will be playing in a game where you don't just have to go to war with the opposition, but also their supporters.

It's why Shay Given has to play. I like David Forde. He is a brilliant 'keeper, a shot-stopper, a superb collector of crosses, a big man with a big personality. He has the character for this type of game but any time I looked down the team line-up when I was an Ireland player, I felt a whole lot more confident that Shay was there.

He had that aura about him, the kind Roy Keane had. And if O'Neill has decided to bring him back then it can't just be to sit on the bench.

Elsewhere, some players are certain to start, Seamus Coleman, John O'Shea, James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan, Robbie Keane and Aiden McGeady.

The areas for dispute are at centre-half - Marc Wilson versus Richard Keogh. At left-back, Wilson or Stephen Ward? Will he go for Wes Hoolahan in a split-striker position? Will he be adventurous and select Robbie Brady and Shane Long and play 4-4-2?

My advice is to be conservative, to pick a 4-5-1 formation with Coleman, O'Shea, Wilson and Ward comprising the defence, with Keane playing as a lone striker and with a midfield quintet of Long on the right, McGeady on the left and Darron Gibson helping McCarthy and Whelan in midfield.

That formation will frustrate the Georgians, silence the Tbilisi crowd and give McGeady and Coleman a license to patrol the flanks with freedom. Three in midfield guarantees solidity but provides width.

And if it secures a draw, that, for me, will be good enough. After all Croatia, Bulgaria, Poland, Russia, Uruguay, Slovakia, Scotland, Wales and Slovenia have all been beaten in Tbilisi. France were held to a 0-0 draw.

A similar result for us would be a good one.

Irish Independent