Tuesday 20 March 2018

Dion Fanning: Martin O'Neill's men are clinging to hope and looking for favours

Grealish decision puts focus on Ireland's lack of quality in defining week

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during squad training
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during squad training

Dion Fanning

Time to assess the state of the nation. If Ireland fail over the next week, Jack Grealish, the Conroy Report, John Delaney, Martin O'Neill, Roy Keane, Ruud Dokter and the national development plan will be up for discussion. The Memories could even add them all to a new verse for a 25th anniversary release of The Game.

By next Sunday, Ireland may have qualified for the European Championships, they could be preparing for a play-off or they could be out. The discussion should be the same whatever happens, but two games against superior opposition will alter everything.

A play-off is realistically the limit of Ireland's ambitions, something Martin O'Neill would be more than happy with after the struggles in a tough group and the slow realisation that he is working with an unspectacular group of players.

There are dedicated professionals in the Ireland squad, and the late recognition for Wes Hoolahan has probably been the most rewarding aspect of the last year, but Ireland lack the quality of their rivals in the group, with even Scotland possessing a little bit more street-smarts when the sides played in Glasgow.

Whether the players have been inspired by O'Neill is another question. As Stephen Hunt points out today, it is still hard to gauge what O'Neill wants beyond the obvious of qualification, even though he will be two years in the job next month.

O'Neill would stress that there is nothing more important than that. It was his message on the day he was unveiled but he may have hoped the squad would have been supplemented by new players who could make a difference.

Jack Grealish has chosen England
Jack Grealish has chosen England

The one who could have made the biggest difference decided he would play for the land of his birth last week. Those who know the Grealish family were not surprised by the decision, stressing that Jack Grealish might have represented Ireland at underage level but his connection to the country of his grandparents demonstrated the difference between first generation Irish and those who are second generation.

Grealish's connections to Ireland shouldn't be forgotten because of the decision he made, even if it might make the coming years more painful as he rises in the game. Only injury can prevent Grealish reaching the top. Those who mocked him when he announced his decision on the basis that he wouldn't get ten caps for the land of his birth probably weren't expecting an England squad announcement which included Dele Alli. He is another player of whom big things are expected but Grealish won't struggle to be recognised by England.

Some have suggested he made a commercial decision, an argument which gained weight when Jonathan Barnett, head of the Stellar Group which represents Grealish, remarked recently that another client Gareth Bale had lost out financially by playing for Wales.

"He could have qualified through his grandmother and I tell you that it has cost him millions and millions of pounds," Barnett said at the Soccerex convention. "You can imagine what it would have been like if he were playing for England next summer in the Euros . . . but he does love playing for Wales."

SOCCER Cypr_51.jpg
Wales' Gareth Bale celebrates his side's win after the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at the GSP Stadium, Cyprus

Barnett might have been playing to the crowd and trying to emphasise Bale's love of his country because one agent was sceptical last week that it would have made a significant difference to his earnings. He pointed out that Bale's transfer to Real Madrid was the most expensive fee in the history of football. Bale reportedly earns £300,000 a week at Madrid, so the money earned through endorsements would be relatively minor. He added that the idea than an agent would get involved in Grealish's decision was "bullshit".

It might be a revolutionary concept but maybe we should take Grealish at his word. His statement was measured and reflected both aspects of his heritage, even if this decision has taken longer than it should have.

Some will still wonder if things would have been different if Grealish had been brought into the senior Ireland squad at an earlier date, and it remains a surprise that more people were not desperate to involve him given his outstanding talent.

Ireland will have to muddle on, something that the country has become accustomed to over the years.

The immediate future is brighter because of the results for Ireland and Scotland last month but dangerous assumptions are being made about the result of the game between Gordon Strachan's side and Poland.

Many will look at the form of Robert Lewandowski and think Scotland's defence will be exposed, but the Bayern Munich striker was on the field when the two sides drew in Warsaw, which may be some guide. Ireland's defence will also have to face him three days later, which should bring an air of reality to the week.

O'Neill is right when he says Ireland need a victory at some point to guarantee a play-off, but nobody would be surprised if they muddled through with a draw. A win in either game this week would have a transformative effect on the team and the country's relationship with them, but with Germany needing a point to qualify, Ireland might be hoping they can avoid defeat against the world champions and then wait and see what happens in Glasgow or Warsaw.

A Scotland victory against Poland would place great pressure on the side and mean that two draws wouldn't be enough, even if draws are what pass for victories in Irish football these days.

O'Neill will have to persist with Hoolahan. The conventional wisdom says he should be left out when playing against strong, superior opposition but the conventional wisdom is usually wrong. Hoolahan has been exceptional for Norwich but was left on the bench when they went to Anfield. A draw perhaps vindicated that decision, although what Hoolahan could have done to an anxious Liverpool defence would have been interesting.

4 September 2015; Wes Hoolahan, Republic of Ireland, in action against Lee Casciaro, Gibraltar. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Gibraltar v Republic of Ireland. Est?dio Algarve, Faro, Portugal. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Ireland need Hoolahan to start. Seamus Coleman is likely to be absent, which will be a significant blow. With Glenn Whelan suspended, James McCarthy will need to do more. He may play in a deeper position, which he is more familiar with at Everton, but he will also need to show the qualities that impress many at Goodison. At his club, people say that he has all the traits of a real competitor and it would be a bonus if he could demonstrate them for Ireland this week.

Coleman's injury robs Ireland of their one potentially outstanding talent, something which will lead to a great debate if Ireland are out of the competition by next Sunday.

O'Neill's future will also be discussed but a search for a new manager would be a waste of time.

There is no quick fix to Ireland's problems and the worry remains that there is no slow fix either.

The FAI would be better off persisting with the manager and making plans for a succession at the end of the World Cup campaign, something which would see them making a real and radical commitment to their coaching structures.

Ireland need to lose the idea that there is a world-class manager out there who is ready to solve their problems. O'Neill might not be the manager he once was but he is probably as good as Ireland can hope for right now.

Hope is often all Ireland has left and it will play its usual cruel and unpredictable part this week.

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