Monday 23 July 2018

Stephen Hunt: Aidan McGeady playing his way into frame for tricky fixture

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

With almost a full week of build-up before the return to the World Cup qualifiers, the Republic of Ireland squad have plenty of time to be prepared for a tricky trip to Georgia at a strange time of the season.

It is not a glamour game, but it is an important one. No one will be thinking about the game against Serbia the following Tuesday, other than playing well enough to stay in the team and getting a win to keeps us in touch with the Serbs. We all expect them to beat Moldova at home.

The foundations for success in this qualifying campaign were laid last season and Martin O'Neill's team are in a very good position to claim top spot and the automatic place for Russia in the next four games. Now the competition is getting serious and the nerves will start kicking in as we get closer to the weekend.

There is a tendency to assume that games like Saturday's trip to Tbilisi are straightforward and an easy three points. Ireland have played Georgia eight times and won all eight so the expectation is that we will win there again. But it is never that simple.

When you are inside the ropes and looking at the pitch, dealing with the long trip and days in the team hotel, the build-up and the match day atmosphere, it all adds to a tough game and a need to be professional, added to the pressure and expectation that comes with playing for Ireland. And his team will not want to be the one that loses that excellent record against Georgia.

I was looking back last week at the team I played in nine years ago against Georgia and I can honestly say that I don't remember much about the game, or that I lined up alongside Steve Finnan and Steven Reid, for example. But I do remember the sense of relief that we came away with a win and the job done.

These places in eastern Europe are always hostile, intimidating and, obviously, a long way from home. The locals may not expect to see their team win but they do like to make the atmosphere as awkward as possible for visiting teams.

The season has barely started, so I always found this an enjoyable week to meet up and be a part of an Ireland squad. Some of the lads will have come in last night, spent time with their families and friends and relaxed. Then today, as the rest of the squad comes together, there are still games on TV to watch and plenty to discuss.

Some players hit the ground running at the start of a new campaign, some need a little more time or more games to find their level, but these boys will never stop thinking about their physical condition and football during the summer break. And a World Cup week brings back the importance of the campaign to players.

Aiden McGeady is one who has started this season as he finished the last and made a flying start at Sunderland after his move from Everton. Simon Grayson deserves a lot of credit for getting the best out of McGeady, and I'd start him against Georgia.

Grayson had McGeady on loan at Preston last season and made him one of his priority signings when he took over at Sunderland and he has clearly told him to go out and enjoy himself and play without pressure. It is not easy to play in the Championship when you have ability like his. It takes bravery and heart and Grayson knows what buttons to press to get the best from him.

For years I think managers and coaches have told him to run more, defend more and attack defenders less. Grayson and his coaching staff must have done the exact opposite. It obviously works. I don't judge players by their character but by their performances on the pitch and he is playing really well.

The injury Jon Walters suffered in midweek is obviously a concern and there is no doubt he will be desperate to play for Ireland and keep up his fine personal run in this campaign. But if he is not fit, we need someone to step in and McGeady could be the one.

An additional distraction for the Ireland squad this week could be the transfer window, which is still open for business and could potentially involve members of Martin O'Neill's squad. It can be a little disruptive, to say the least.

I remember one year, I had to go to a Garda station to complete the paperwork for my transfer and fax it over to the UK to complete my move from Reading to Hull. I actually bumped into one of the officers recently, and they still talk about it.

The manager understands this is the way football works nowadays so, while it is not ideal, it could actually work in his favour. Some players need a move, and these can be life- and career-changing opportunities, so a few hours concentrating on that is not going to distract from the importance of international duty.

No player wants to make a bad move to a new club. The chance to jump ship can offer a fresh start and give a player a boost, so rather than kick up a fuss about the timing of the transfer window closing, Martin O'Neill might actually embrace it. He'll have a little fun this week, knowing him. It should be a great week, if everyone named in the squad reports in fit.

One player who will be welcomed to the squad is Scott Hogan, who has made a good start to the season with Aston Villa. It is not ideal that he has taken so long to declare for Ireland because it should be about the pride in playing, not whether it makes sense.

O'Neill will have met him, told him this is what we have, this is what we do, this is the atmosphere in the camp, this is how the fans will be, and you will enjoy playing for Ireland. He will not have told him he is guaranteed to play or start games because managers cannot do that anymore, so it is up to Hogan to embrace this opportunity now.

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