The new Premier League star in Martin O’Neill’s Ireland squad has not emerged from nowhere.
Matt Doherty has been there all along. It’s almost four years since O’Neill first touched on the subject of Doherty, who was then a Championship regular with Wolves that was unable to make 36-man provisional squads.
He had to wait until March of this year to make his debut after lingering around the fringes, with a change of regime at Wolves propelling the Dubliner to a level above the bulk of his international team-mates.
Earlier this week, a vote by fans on the PFA website crowned the 26-year-old Doherty as the Premier League’s player of the month for September. It’s 11 years since an Irish player had been recognised in that way and Robbie Keane was the recipient on that occasion.
Those public polls can be volatile and open to manipulation, yet the very fact that Doherty was in the discussion is telling. Wolves are an exciting side to watch, and the man from Swords has survived the cull of a dressing room that is now driven by continental influences. His raids from wing-back make for entertaining viewing, and he’s winning new admirers on a weekly basis.
O’Neill has consistently left us with the impression that he remains to be convinced, but he went to watch Doherty score at Crystal Palace on Saturday and admitted he was impressed. With Seamus Coleman out of action this week, a competitive debut is on the cards, although Cyrus Christie remains in the frame.
The Irish boss has consistently received criticism for failing to go into detail on his decisions, but he has outlined his issues with Doherty.
Indeed, he feels that the man of the moment has actually taken that feedback on board. The Derryman spoke in the summer about how he would like the player to drive on with the ball like Christie instead of checking back inside.
His initial reservation about Doherty – when he was playing as a left-back – was the actual quality of his defending when it came to getting closer to opponents.
Last month, there was more than a hint of frustration in the player’s take on the advice he had received from management.
“I know he’s said he would like me to attack more,” said Doherty, who was unhappy to not get a start for the friendly in Poland when Coleman was absent.
“Maybe I’ll do that. When I first joined up, it was my defending that’s the problem. Now it’s my attacking. Maybe my face doesn’t fit.”
In O’Neill’s defence, it could be argued that Coleman rarely gets to showcase his strengths across the halfway line while wearing green as it’s hard to make those breaks if the opponent is dominating possession.
With a flat back four, the principal task is defending, whereas Doherty’s wing-back role in a very technically assured Wolves side allows him to roam.
The brief for whoever is selected on Saturday is likely to be more rigid, although there’s a compelling argument to go with the three at the back which worked in Poland – especially if it allows one of the few in-form players to flourish.
And O’Neill indicated yesterday that it was a live possibility.
“Matt is doing really well, really great,” he said. “So if he is going to come in here you’d like things to be as comfortable for him as possible and if we make adjustments for him, so be it.
“At this moment if we do go into the wing-back role – he has been doing exceptionally well. And he would be comfortable with that rather than being in a normal right-back role.
“ I’m not saying that I’m picking the whole side just to suit one player, but it’s certainly something we’re looking at.”
A proper audition would help to challenge the theory that management hold other reservations about Doherty.
Another aspect of his post-Wroclaw interview with Sunday newspaper journalists was the bizarre angle that O’Neill had taken issue with the fact that the former Bohemians player likes to wear gloves.
Doherty is certainly his own man and has irritated some managers on his way up the ladder. During a stint on loan at Hibernian, it was his slightly erratic time-keeping that bugged the hierarchy.
His ex-team-mate Stephen Hunt is close to Doherty and strongly supportive of his case but did mention in a recent Sunday Independent column that he might occasionally carry himself in a way that rubs people up the wrong way.
“If you are looking for a player to play out of his skin in training, then that’s not ‘Doc’,” he said.
In recent months, we have learned via WhatsApp and other mediums – if there was any doubt already – that this Irish regime have preferences for how players deal with training commitments.
Doherty is a confident character, and is so laid-back while being interviewed that he could almost be accused of being flippant. He may not tick the boxes for the personality that O’Neill and Keane would like in their dressing room.
But he can play. “He performs in games, and he is arguably our best natural defender,” was Hunt’s definitive statement. His Portuguese club boss, Nuno, loves Doherty’s approach and feels that Doherty has a mentality which has allowed him to easily transition to the top flight.
“Matt has been doing his job since last year,” he said. “He didn’t change the way he approaches the competitions and he’s doing well. What others think and what others want from Matt, I don’t care.”
O’Neill’s tone after the open training session at the Aviva was positive. “I never thought for one minute his face didn’t fit,” he asserted.
You sense Doherty is waiting for Saturday’s team announcement for the confirmation.
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