Saturday 24 February 2018

Steven Reid: Martin O'Neill must place his trust in safe bet Robbie Keane

Robbie Keane and Martin O’Neill deep in discussion in Malahide yesterday
Robbie Keane and Martin O’Neill deep in discussion in Malahide yesterday
Steven Reid

Steven Reid

It has been a week when the management have been caught up in a car crash and the chief executive caught up in the FIFA drama.

Before all this there was the alleged row with Roy Keane and a fan in the team hotel, the furore surrounding the release of Keane's book, the prospect of Keane leaving to take the Celtic job and the realisation that England may steal away the best prospect we have produced in years.

Bearing all this in mind, today's match could possibly prove to be a distraction from all the distractions.

I've said it before and will say it again, the players won't lose one bit of focus with all that has gone on around them. They won't be distracted. They will be amused.

I've been there. I have sat in team hotels, bored out of my mind. I have been there for the biggest distraction of all, Roy and Mick falling out in Saipan.

Yet we regrouped, drew with Germany, Cameroon and Spain, beat Saudi Arabia, reached the last 16 of the World Cup, minus our best player, lost on penalties to a global footballing superpower, and coped.

Players always find a way of doing so.

And believe me, they will cope with the fact John Delaney is in the news. They will be aware of it and footballers being footballers, they will find a way of turning it into banter. It is something to talk about - a break from the monotony of a fortnight cooped up in the team hotel.

I thought it was good management by Martin and Roy to allow the lads have a day off on Monday, to get away from base-camp for a little R&R, to let their hair down. You need that. Otherwise you'd go stir-crazy.

Good managers know how to judge the mood. In the 2002 World Cup, Mick could sense when we were getting restless, when we needed a break from the training-ground-hotel-training ground routine.

You have to remember it is not like club football. There, you do your work, have your dinner at the training ground and go home. You spend your spare time with your family or your friends.

Here, on international duty, you don't have a home. It's hotel life and no matter how nice the hotel is, you get bored. It isn't a home environment.


And you aren't fully relaxed. Family aren't around. You aren't on holiday, you're working. And mentally, you need to be stimulated and sometimes you need a break, and Martin was smart to give them one.

He needs a break himself today.

When you look at the group table, you quickly appreciate the importance of this game. For Ireland, this really is do-or-die. Lose, and a five-point gap between us and the Scots will open up. The Poles, you'd imagine, will beat Georgia tonight so a victory for them, coupled with an Irish defeat, would leave six points between us and Adam Nawalka's side with just four games remaining.

Yet let's take a positive slant on life. Imagine Ireland win tonight. Then we would be on 11 points, one ahead of Scotland, two behind Germany, three adrift of Poland.

We play Gibraltar and Georgia in the space of five days in September. Surely we can win those two games? If we do we will be on 17 points, which will more than likely be as many as the Poles can hope to accumulate by that same stage. After all, they have a trip to Germany to look forward to, on the same night we travel to Faro to play Gibraltar.

Scotland, too, would feel the pressure if they lose. They'd have 10 points to carry through to their September double-header away to Georgia and at home to the Germans.

Knowing they need to win both games, they could very easily drop points in both, certainly they will do well to hold Germany to a draw in Glasgow. In other words, a win tonight could shift the mood in this group dramatically.

It could allow for the prospect of the Group D table looking like this by the end of September. Three teams - ourselves, Germany and Poland could all be on 17 points each - with Scotland further adrift on just 14 (that is assuming Scotland hold Germany to a draw).

The Scots would then have to pick up six points from their final two games, at home to Poland and away in Gibraltar, if they were to have any chance of qualifying. Should they beat the Poles then that too could work in our favour as we may then only need a draw in Warsaw on the final day of the group to secure a play-off spot.

So in other words, this is it. Tonight could be the game-changer in the campaign, the moment when everything turned in our favour.

It can happen. We can win. It is not impossible.

It may be a long time since we beat a team of Scotland's quality in a competitive international - eight years since the night Kevin Doyle headed in the goal that beat Slovakia which was the only major win in a qualifier since the 1-0 victory over the Dutch in 2001.

But this isn't Holland. This is Scotland, a good team but not one that would strike you with fear the way Brazil, Germany, Italy or Argentina would.

I think we'll do it, providing Robbie Keane gets the nod. The rest of the team, Shay Given in goal, Seamus Coleman, John O'Shea, Marc Wilson and Robbie Brady in defence, a midfield comprising Jon Walters, James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan and Aiden McGeady, picks itself.

That leaves a choice of two from three - Robbie, Wes Hoolahan and Shane Long. All three are good players. But Robbie is a goalscorer. In the last fortnight, Ireland have played England and Northern Ireland in friendlies. Each match finished 0-0. That makes my mind up. I hope it has convinced Martin O'Neill as well.

He has to go with the man who has so often delivered on the big occasion for Ireland. Robbie loves the big games, thrives under the pressure. With him, we'll win.

Believe me.

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