Thursday 15 November 2018

Brian Kerr: It's time for Martin O'Neill to trust his Ireland squad to start a revival

Ireland need not only to identify new players but find new identity after Danish pasting

Declan Rice attempts to get away from Matt Doherty during training at Antalya Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Declan Rice attempts to get away from Matt Doherty during training at Antalya Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Brian Kerr

International football is not only about seeking an identity for a team but it is also concerned with having players who identify with their national team. In times past, this was rarely a problem but, within the new flexibility that flourishes in the global game, it is a recurring feature these days.

After the unseemly uncertainty of Martin O'Neill's own managerial future that ended 2017, he would hardly have expected the issue of player eligibility to overshadow his return to the Irish dugout in 2018.

The quite public spat with Michael O'Neill may have legs yet but this week much of the focus in the build-up to tonight's friendly has been dominated by a player who seems unwilling to commit to Ireland - yet - and another who seems more likely to.

There was hope that Reading's Liam Kelly might become available, especially if he could prove himself better than the players we already have - always a primary consideration. There is more confidence that Declan Rice will do so.

Five other players in this week's squad have represented three different nations before. Jamal Lewis from Norwich has this week opted to choose Northern Ireland ahead of England.

Even Gareth Southgate, as he decides which Burnley centre-back to feature in his friendly against the Netherlands, has had to re-adjust to the fact that the much-trumpeted 'best league in the world' possesses fewer and fewer potential England internationals.

Indeed, some are disappointed that Glenn Murray, a 34-year-old plying his trade for Brighton, has not made the squad. A far cry from the golden generation.

There is no certainty any more.

For Irish players such as Gary Breen and Kevin Kilbane, there was never a dilemma.

Currency

You might have thought Kelly - and indeed Jack Grealish before him - would have jumped at the chance of playing for Ireland.

But that dwindling currency of English-qualified players leads him to believe his career may be better progressed by hanging on for a call from Southgate.

When managing Ireland, these problems rarely arose in my case. I did identify Jon Macken - a former English U-20 player - but after being drafted into our squad, it emerged he wasn't better than what we already had.

Aiden McGeady was a different case, alerted to us by Packie Bonner as a 15-year-old and, even though Scotland tried to get him, he showed a remarkable strength of character as an 18-year-old to commit to Ireland.

We're not sure what level of contact really existed between Kelly and O'Neill but for now we move on without him.

International football is now as much about recruitment as anything else; the geographical spread of players in this week's squad suggests there has been a welcome advance in the intensity of scouting.

O'Neill's Ireland are not only seeking to identify those new players but also an identity for themselves as they emerge from the wreckage of the World Cup play-off humiliation.

This summer, the global extravaganza will continue without them; it is two years since Ireland really re-connected with the public in the midst of those joyous few days in France but since then there has been a lack of engagement and enthusiasm, never mind a lack of goals or style.

You sense the manager might be happy to be ensconced in the Mediterranean enclave, away from prying eyes and a sceptical public.

The burning question for us all is how Ireland and the manager progress from here given the knowledge that what has been tried in the last campaign ultimately failed them.

Can this be start of real renewal? Will we see more goals? Will we see a discernible adaptation of style and attitude? The friendlies should allow some room to advance the necessary change.

One would hope to see more evidence of developing a passing pattern of play while sharpening a precise, pre-match tactical approach would help too.

No more than exploiting your resources in terms of players, a small nation then also needs to maximise the levels of performance they get from them.

This hasn't consistently been the case with Ireland, whose players often appear to display much more of their confident ability when lining out for relatively average club teams than they do with their country.

Since Euro 2016, it has been desperately disappointing that Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady have not kicked on; Harry Arter too.

With Wes Hoolahan now gone, who will be the fulcrum of the passing game that served Ireland so much better on the rare occasions they chose to deploy it, rather than the percentage play of boot, bollock and bite?

Glenn Whelan may also retire soon. Many will not lament this passing because many lamented his passing.

To my mind, this area of his game was ignored by a succession of unambitious managers; Glenn Whelan would never be confused with Glenn Hoddle but in several seasons at mid-table Stoke, his ability on the ball was never restricted as it seemed to be in a green shirt.

His role with Ireland, often underestimated, will now need to be filled by a more mobile, dynamic player armed with - and encouraged to use - courage on the ball to start play as well as protecting the centre-halves.

David Meyler might have been an option here but his glaring exposure against Denmark was hardly convincing.

Trust

The manager needs to trust the players that they can compose a passing pattern of play in midfield, just as Burnley duo Brady and Hendrick manage at appropriate times for them. There is little point in featuring an Alan Judge, Seán Maguire or Scott Hogan if the game is literally going over their heads.

Defensively, O'Neill seems fairly well-resourced and Seamus Coleman's return is an obvious boost; it has been a while since a young Irish player made an impact in the Premier League so Rice's potential is obvious, if untested at this level.

Up front, retirements have reduced the options too but given that the team lacks a regular goal-scorer - in 2017, Shane Duffy was joint leading scorer on two goals - much will be expected of Maguire.

The manager hasn't always appeared too convinced and was dismissive of him on the basis of one Cork viewing; thankfully, Preston were more persistent.

He has the knack of finding space in the penalty area, he has pace and strength and he can head the ball.

However, as O'Neill has suggested, international football is more difficult.

Maguire is on fire though and the public need something to get them energised again. They have not forgotten how Denmark left their side dead and buried.

At the very least, all they want is some semblance of new life.

Irish Independent

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