Thursday 19 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Matt Doherty just too good to be left out of Ireland side'

Coleman our No 1 right-back but McCarthy must find a way to include Wolves colossus

Matt Doherty (centre) takes the acclaim from his Wolves team-mates after opening the scoring against Watford. Photo: Reuters
Matt Doherty (centre) takes the acclaim from his Wolves team-mates after opening the scoring against Watford. Photo: Reuters
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

There is no choice to be made between Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty. Ireland need both in the team. Given the lack of quality players available, Mick McCarthy must find a way to accommodate our two best Premier League performers.

The duo's importance was evident yesterday as they gave colossal performances in the two biggest matches of the weekend. Those displays also showed how the two players possess very different strengths.

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Coleman celebrates the victory over Arsenal. Photo: Getty
Coleman celebrates the victory over Arsenal. Photo: Getty

What the Dubliner and the Donegal man have in common is an indomitable competitive spirit, apparent in the way they fought till the bitter end at Goodison Park and Wembley.

Four minutes into injury-time on Merseyside, Arsenal seemed set for a dangerous breakaway as the ball was played up to Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang near the halfway line. Coleman, giving away two stone and three inches, muscled the striker off the ball, leaving him in a crumpled heap before setting Everton on the attack.

Down in London, as a gruelling epic moved into injury-time of extra-time Doherty found the energy for one last run into the box to try and meet a low cross as Wolves sought an equaliser. The ball, like the FA Cup final appearance which had seemed on the cards for 90 minutes, agonisingly eluded him.

How different it had all seemed when he powered home a header in the 31st minute to give Wolves the lead. It was Doherty's seventh goal of the season and one impossible to imagine Coleman ever scoring. Yet there was also a moment at Goodison, Coleman calmly policing the flying Alex Iwobi, cutting off the Gunner's route to goal and shepherding the ball over the end line, which Doherty couldn't have emulated.

Coleman is a much better defender in the classic mould than Doherty. There is a fundamental soundness to his play matched by few full-backs. He would not have been troubled by the second-half forays of Watford's Jose Holebas to the same extent as the Wolves player.

Doherty's talent is a more quixotic one. So much of his best work is done going forward you can't see why he couldn't be a success on the right side of midfield. Scrapping the idea of the two playing together because it didn't work in Gibraltar would be foolish. The very weirdness of that encounter should prevent any lasting inferences being drawn from it.

The Wolves player is over-qualified for the role of Coleman's understudy. The perfectly flighted ball which set up his side's second goal for Raul Jimenez showed that as did the weaving run into the Watford box seven minutes from time which evoked memories of Ricky Villa.

The timing of the run which enabled him to meet Diogo Jota's cross for the opening goal at Wembley epitomised Doherty at his best. Abdoulaye Doucoure, who he'd slipped away from, wore an expression which seemed to ask, "How did he get there?"

That question keeps being asked about Matt Doherty. How he did get signed by Wolves from Bohemians when he hadn't even played a League of Ireland match for the latter? How did he maintain his place in the Wolves team from League One to the Premier League when most ambitious clubs offload players as they move up the divisions? And how did a player whose strengths are the traditional ones of the British and Irish game become such a vital part of the Premier League's most European team?

Wolves, with their magnificent Portuguese quartet of Moutinho, Jota, Neves and manager Nuno Espirito Santo, their stars from Mexico, France and Spain and their intricate style of play sometimes seem like a continental team anachronistically parachuted into the Black Country. Yet Doherty has played as important a role during their remarkable return to the Premier League as any of the more naturally gifted players surrounding him.

Determination has something to do with this. The old pseudo-science of physiognomy which held that you could tell character from inspecting a subject's facial features bit the dust a long time ago. Yet Doherty's haunted hollowed-out hungry appearance suggests fires burning ferociously within.

The same kind of fearsome focus also enabled the progress of Coleman, a player glad to get a start at Sligo Rovers when more vaunted youths had gone to England. As the prodigies fell by the wayside, the kid from Killybegs became the best Irish player of his generation. He has maintained a remarkable consistency for a decade.

There had been fears the terrible injury he suffered against Wales and Everton's apparent stagnation could lead to Coleman losing his edge. O ye of little faith. His nomination as Premier League Player of the Month for March shows his standing in the game is as high as ever. Against Arsenal he was flawless in defence and surged down the right to great effect in the second half. He will remain Ireland's undisputed number one right-back.

So what to do with Matt Doherty? That question could make or break Mick McCarthy's term as manager. The Wes Hoolahan saga shows how misuse of a talented player can blight an entire reign.

The Ireland manager has spoken of how Doherty once played left-back for Wolves. Yet deploying the player to maximum effect may need something more imaginative than a mere switch of wings. The experiment might require both persistence and patience.

It'll be worth it in the end. Ireland don't have enough good players to leave any on the bench. Mick has to be non-binary about this one.

Irish Independent

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