Sunday 18 March 2018

John Giles - Being very good without the ball won't be good enough... we need Wes

Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan
Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan
John Giles

John Giles

MISSED opportunity or a good away draw? Time will tell but there’s more than a niggle at the back of my mind telling me that Martin O’Neill and Ireland will look back on Copenhagen with regret.

We move onto the Aviva tomorrow and a win or bust game which is never a bad thing for this Ireland but I’m worried because of what I saw against Austria, Wales and Serbia on home turf during qualifying.

I worry because I don’t know what team O’Neill will pick after four years watching him in the job.

But I’m fully aware that these are the moments when he comes into his own. O’Neill’s magic formula will be put to the test again.

I spoke before the game about the mystery ingredient which O’Neill brings to the table but there was nothing mysterious about the performance in the first-leg against Denmark.

Around about the fourth time an Irish player played the ball towards the touchline with no visible target in mind other than distance and an unoccupied area of the pitch, it was plain as day what O’Neill wanted.

With each painfully slow execution of a throw-in, kick-out or set-piece came the increasing certainty that this would be another one of those anxious nights.

It goes against every aspect of the way I believe the game should be played to be so heedless of the ball. This was almost like a rugby team, kicking for field position.

The approach delivered a scoreless draw but a result which would be ideal in the context of a qualifying group, becomes something very different in knockout football because of the away goal rule.

What was frustrating for me was the clear evidence on view that Denmark were able to do very, very little with the luxury of endless possession and think that should have been a signal to O’Neill. They were there to be beaten.

The best example of that was when Cyrus Christie shrugged off his instructions and galloped forward with intent. He almost scored because he dared to think he might.

It was one of the very few times Ireland strayed from O’Neill’s script and I have no doubt in my mind that the team played the way they played because they were doing as ordered.

I’m certain that Ireland could have been more positive, more composed with the ball if O’Neill had encouraged them to pass more and not be afraid of making a mistake.

Sure, against really good players when Ireland are in an underdog situation, it is difficult to make a serious argument against a dogged, backs-to-the-wall display of physical courage.

But against this team, there was an opportunity to show moral courage by holding on to the ball. I think they would have been rewarded had they done that.

All of that said, it was a solid defensive performance and as has been the case many times over the years, Ireland were very good without the ball.

That will not be enough tomorrow night in the return at the Aviva. Ireland must move onto the front foot and I’m blue in the face suggesting that the best way of doing that is by picking Wes Hoolahan.

Will O’Neill pick him? I honestly don’t know but if he does, we will see a very different Ireland from the start. Saturday’s game wasn’t the last chance saloon but the return is and there is a very clear trend with Ireland in games like this under O’Neill.

At the moment when fear is replaced by the knowledge that this is an all or nothing game, O’Neill’s mystery ingredient seems to have its greatest power to stir hearts and focus minds.

Many players panic when the stakes are so high but Ireland, in O’Neill’s care, have shown that they can dig deep instead and find a goal.

Find a goal they must and perhaps two.

Online Editors

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