John Aldridge: Players - not politics - the big issue ahead of this Northern Ireland clash
NORTHERN Ireland are coming to the Aviva Stadium on Thursday night for an international match that revives memories of a pretty extraordinary game at Windsor Park in 1993.
I started for Jack Charlton’s Ireland team on a night when we qualified for USA ’94 and it was a occasion when there was real hatred in the air.
The drive to the ground sticks in my mind as the Belfast fans made it clear that they didn’t want us in their city and, at a time when The Troubles were at their height, we all appreciated this was more than just a football match.
None of us wanted to be pawns in a political story, but that is what we became for one night only.
It was a case of finding a way to get through it and while Alan McLoughlin’s goal booked our place in a second successive World Cup finals, I was happy to hear the final whistle that night and not just for sporting reasons.
The atmosphere will be very different when the two nations lock horns again on Thursday and thankfully, Ireland’s problems on the field will be more of an issue than any political issues or sideline issues.
As has been the case since Robbie Keane’s retirement, the big problem for Ireland continues to be an alarming lack of goals and even though it will be interesting to see Southampton teenager Michael Obafemi in action if he makes his debut, we will be reminded of the weak spot in this Ireland set-up very quickly once the match gets underway.
This Ireland team will be looking to defend well and grind out a 1-0 victory thanks to a goal from a set-piece.
To be honest, Ireland fans would take any kind of result after a very difficult 12 months.
Confidence is clearly drained in Martin O’Neill’s squad and even though we have the best supporters in the world, there even appears to be a mood of disillusionment among the fans as the lack of top-class talent in the team is a major concern.
There have been plenty of calls for O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane to be replaced, but does anyone really believe a change at the top would make a massive difference to this current batch of Ireland players?
The lads O’Neill will pick on Thursday will give their all, but they lack the quality to hold on to the ball against the top sides in international football and the goal scoring issue needs to be solved before the tide turns back in Ireland’s favour.
The Ireland team I was a part of under Jack’s leadership set the standard very high for the players that followed. We had top-class players including Shay Given, Damien Duff, Roy Keane and Robbie Keane to continue the momentum in the team when my generation came to an end.
When I look at the Ireland squad named for this game, those top quality players are lacking at the moment and the reality is you may only need one or two to break through to transform a team.
Wales got to the Euro 2016 semi-finals even though they only had one world-class player in Gareth Bale and that shows what is possible on the international stage, but we are not blessed with a player of his quality at the moment.
These are difficult times for Ireland and we need to stand behind our players and hope a few gems come though the Irish system in the next few years to give us a chance to revive the glory days.