Thursday 18 January 2018

Miguel Delaney: After qualifying it can all change, change utterly

Competition for places allows manager to avoid stagnation in lengthy build-up to tournament

The Republic of Ireland team line out ahead of their friendly against Switzerland. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
The Republic of Ireland team line out ahead of their friendly against Switzerland. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

For some of the players in the room, it was the first spark of realisation they're going to be involved in something special. For Martin O'Neill, it was the first chance to get through some necessary business. This, after all, is where his work for the summer really starts.

The Irish manager sat the squad down in midweek to begin discussing logistics for Euro 2016, the plan for France. It was all finally becoming real.

Seamus Coleman couldn't hide an endearing enthusiasm. The atmosphere around Ireland's 1-0 friendly win over Switzerland might have been relatively subdued and didn't really feel like a proper tournament build-up, but the stand-in captain is not thinking that way.

"For me it feels like it," Coleman said. "I can't wait. I missed out on the last one, obviously, so I'm excited. I think about it every day, probably . . . I think we've got a good chance of getting out of the group. I can't wait"

Darren Randolph isn't quite at that point yet, and the different attitude reflects the oddity of the situation now for O'Neill, with one of the West Ham United goalkeeper's lines conspicuously summing up one of the key challenges for the management team.

"It still hasn't really sunk in and I don't think it will until we meet up for the summer, and we're on the plane going to France," Randolph said. "I've still got games, still got a chance to get to Wembley [in the FA Cup]. There's a lot more that can happen between now and the time the Euros come around."

Even more can happen to an international team between the November of qualification and the time a tournament comes around. Randolph was obviously talking about the club game with his last line, and how much can change in a matter of weeks, but it is an issue of even more relevance to international managers. It is actually one of their big tests that is often underestimated during these periods.

If put into club terms, the time between qualification and the first match of a tournament is almost a season's difference. A team can be completely transformed.

It is a test made all the greater by the constrained spells an international manager has with the squad himself. Too much time to think with, not enough time to work with. This is effectively O'Neill's pre-season, after all, but it's not like he can do much tactical or physical preparation.

He is dependent on a host of intangibles that even going beyond individual club form he can't really condition in any way.

Squads can be in a completely different mental or physical state by the time a tournament comes around. Some of the strengths and weakness so crucial in qualification can change, or become irrelevant. The age profile might have slightly but significantly altered. A squad might just be at a different point of a cycle.

The European Championships have seen repeated illustrations of this. Most famously, Denmark went from a team struggling to keep pace with Yugoslavia in qualifying for 1992, to winning the tournament outright when unexpectedly allowed in.

It is even more pronounced on the other side, on the down-slide. Collapses tend to be more rapid. A heavily-fancied France had a 100 per cent record going into Euro '92, only to go out in the group stage without a win.

Ireland, meanwhile, have been involved in repeated illustrations of this themselves. At Euro '88, England had been unbeaten in qualifying, only to lose every match at the tournament once Jack Charlton's side had claimed a 1-0 win.

Most recently, Ireland went to Euro 2012 with Giovanni Trapattoni willingly talking up the chances of replicating Greece and going and winning the tournament, only for his side to suffer the worst campaign of any qualifier in the history of the competition.

The squad was just at the wrong end of a cycle, the key players that bit too old. The qualities that had got them there had been eroded, and there was a sense of stagnation about it all.

It is the latter that O'Neill must most work against. It also poses something of a contradiction.

The Irish manager has to try and maintain the same competitive spirit that got Ireland to France, and prevent it going flat, but the only way to do that is by changing enough to keep it bubbling. Keeping the chemistry balanced over that length of time is a difficult. Some things have to change to stay the same.

At the least, O'Neill has taken the first steps in this by also taking an approach that is the polar opposite to Trapattoni. The contrast between the first build-up friendlies indicates a lot.

In February 2012, Trapattoni initially called up just 24 players for the match against Czech Republic, before eventually making it a still-low 26. O'Neill called up 40 for these matches, and then cut it down to a still-ample 33.

Trapattoni also played something very close to his first-choice XI in what many would have considered a match ideal for experimentation, and reluctantly gave flavour-of-the-month James McClean his debut. O'Neill played a completely different team and gave three fringe players their debuts - Alan Judge, Eunan O'Kane and Jonathan Hayes.

One other difference can be illustrated in a quip Randolph tells about Trapattoni. The Italian was so fixed on his main players, it seems, he barely knew the outsiders. "[O'Neill] doesn't call me 'keeper'," Randolph jokes. "He calls me by my name!"

The current manager has more than lived up to his own quip that he has never had a problem discarding average players, by including so many new names.

It says much about his plan that there are still so many questions over so many key positions, not least centre-half and goalkeeper. That variety was another constant of qualification.

"Even all through the group stages," Randolph says, "when people have been given a chance, they've taken it. I suppose it's good for all of us in a way that there's not one nailed down and you know you have to keep working hard. The manager's got a tough job to try and cut it down and I'm glad it's not my job."

It is little wonder that training last week was so competitive, as Coleman explains.

"If you could see training the last few days, the tempo is there, people are trying to impress, people are trying to stay in the team, or to get in the team. The tempo has been really high all week, everyone knows this is the last meet-up before the squad gets cut."

It was a competitiveness carried into the Switzerland game. An otherwise flat affair still regularly spiked with a series of rigorous Irish challenges.

All of Robbie Brady, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Quinn, David Meyler and Judge went in strongly, leaving the Swiss with the sense this might be a bit more than a friendly for some.

It did spill over for Ireland at one point, when Kevin Doyle's return was cut short with a deep cut to his shin.

He is ruled out for Tuesday's match against Slovakia, as is Jon Walters, while Darryl Murphy has gone back to Ipswich Town after a calf injury. Shane Long is the only fit striker and O'Neill - for once with these friendlies - has no plans to bring in more names.

Doyle posted a graphic picture of his injury on Twitter and, once the initial revulsion had passed, players were having a good-natured laugh about it. It reflected another quality of this group that O'Neill must keep constant: their spirit.

That might seem a cliché, but it is so clearly evident, and remains something rare in international football. It arguably brought Ireland through qualifying against a talented but disparate Bosnia, and fosters the competitive intensity that Switzerland faced on Friday.

It is also something that can be eroded if there are too many squad changes, and is another contradiction O'Neill has to consider and balance.

Any team switches have not affected the spirit too much so far, though, as illustrated by how committed and cohesive the defence looks no matter who is in it.

"I think there's a trust there between us all," goalscorer Ciaran Clark says. "We've got that bond on and off the field."

That could be seen in what might be considered a developing omerta. Coleman was asked whether the management had discussed any logistics for France at the squad.

"No, not at the minute," he abruptly responded.

Just moments later, Randolph revealed they had. When asked what they were, he chuckled to himself.

"Sorry, I can't say! I shouldn't even have said that. I can't tell you any more."

O'Neill evidently wants to keep almost everyone guessing. It could be the key to keeping the team's focus.

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