Wednesday 22 November 2017

David Kelly: Polished diamond in the rough shows even the wisest of managers have to keep learning

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

To listen to those who have played under him, it often appears that Martin O'Neill approaches team selection like an anxious Vegas veteran might a craps table.

A roll of the dice. A trusting so often, not so much of faith, but in fate.

Hailing from an era before the current vogue for systems and coaching buzzwords, the Derryman's unique managerial skills have been predicated upon the once-sound principles that energy, commitment and courage can offset any advantages in skill and talent denied his teams.

In the traumatic days and hours since the horror show in Tbilisi, it seemed for all the world that O'Neill's only remaining gambit was to metaphorically lift up the Aviva, shake it like a snow globe and hope the feverish support would produce the prettiest of pictures.

More would be required, though, and after the artless - and occasionally gutless - efforts in Georgia, something more substantial was needed.

That it forced him to confront what seemed like the most obvious solution - a 35-year-old who has missed as many games as he has played for Norwich this season - says as much about his management as it does the state of the team he continues to uncertainly helm.

Wes Hoolahan in action during the Republic's qualifier against Serbia at the Aviva last night. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan in action during the Republic's qualifier against Serbia at the Aviva last night. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Wes Hoolahan's inclusion was not a surprise; Harry Arter's exclusion was; the Bournemouth dynamo providing the perfect template of the type of composed and patient presence needed to put his foot on the ball and not only keep possession for his side, but deny it to the dangerous opposition.

Arter, you feel, has never felt fully integrated into this set-up; injury deprived him of a Euro 2016 berth and, despite proclaiming the team spirit of this group, his weekend comments betrayed someone who feels as if he is playing a different sport, let alone playing it for a different team.

O'Neill may or may not have heard these comments; his selection indicated that he still remains rooted in a footballing philosophy which is not necessarily shared by Arter or the other players in this squad who would rather pass the ball as opposed to hoof it and hope.

Deigning to include Hoolahan was in itself almost a roll of the dice, even if rooted in more logic.

Giovanni Trapattoni rarely sought to include Hoolahan's guile and this decade's Andy Reid has also failed to convince his successor sufficiently, despite Ireland's best three performances in recent times including him as the prompting conductor.

He can not play a tune without an industrious orchestra and his team-mates needed to provide more commitment and energy than the limp efforts just days ago.

Ireland deployed a diamond; oddly, one that would have suited Arter perfectly. David Meyler lies deep, allowing a nominal two-man front-pairing, but the resultant gaps on the flanks against marauding wing-backs are evident from the off.

But Ireland are snapping into tackles and the player maligned for his lack of physicality leads the charge, smashing into Luka Millivojevic and Dusan Tadic. And all the while he is busy on the ball, shifting it this way and that, finding space and, when Ireland are denied an early goal, the key pass too.

The corner from which they are denied was won after six successive passes, the switch from Hoolahan; Ireland didn't string more than three together at any one time on Saturday.

His zest infects the once-lethargic Brady to recover some of the class he demonstrated last summer. Meyler is coaxed forward; the full-backs too.

Suddenly, there are options, decisions to be made, responsibilities to be taken. And this group of intelligent, decent footballers can cope with that if allowed.

Which all shows that really this isn't necessarily about the state of a football nation which seems to be relying on an ageing player on the subs bench of a Championship side in the relegation zone.

It is about a state of mind. Ireland are courageous - on and off the ball - and the crowd throatily salute them for it. They are coherent and eloquent; on Saturday they were disparate and mute.

The cleverest of runs from Hoolahan into the right-hand side of the box is spotted by Brady; he essays a swivel but is denied.

Serbia's threat is persistent, too; though Ireland's harassment limits it.

It is a wildly lurching affair; Hoolahan delivers a superb ball - with his lesser favoured right wand and almost finds Long before Meyler must repel Kolarov seconds later at the other end.

Serbia's score is not inevitable but sudden; Ireland have eight bodies back, Hoolahan one of those drifting away from the populated penalty box as his side succumb. Ireland's rhythm is unstuck.

Cometh the hour, departeth the man. Daryl Murphy had scored in Serbia and the groans are not for him but the unfaithfully departed. The game lurches once more when Serbia lose a man for a half-hour but Ireland withdraw Brady to left-back and their play becomes ever more longer and desperate.

Serbia effectively drop to nine for the last ten minutes when Vukovic ruptures his hamstring. Ireland finish with five up front. When they most need poise and patience, there is only panic.

Poise remains watching the dug-out.

Irish Independent

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