Tuesday 23 January 2018

Stephen Hunt: Martin O'Neill's expert handling of Robbie Keane exit bodes well for road to Russia

Martin O'Neill played a blinder in the last week. His handling of it all, from giving Robbie the limelight for his farewell to bringing the squad back, was superb. Photo: PA Wire
Martin O'Neill played a blinder in the last week. His handling of it all, from giving Robbie the limelight for his farewell to bringing the squad back, was superb. Photo: PA Wire
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

There was a moment last week that I think will have meant much more to the Irish players than anyone realised, and showed me that Martin O'Neill is fully focused and means business; that he's ready to try and win this group.

He was doing his press conference before the Oman match, with Jon Walters beside him, and started to talk about players setting up Robbie Keane for a goal. He said: "If they're in a better goalscoring position and they decide to lay one back to Robbie and he misses . . . Robbie is retiring and there's a fairly decent chance the other boy will be retiring too."

That was classic O'Neill, and a perfect example of how he's managing his players at every opportunity. It was like 'take it as a joke, but you know what I really mean'. He knew well that Walters would go straight back and say it to the rest of the team, because it's what players pick up on. Little things like that make you realise O'Neill really is a great man-manager. That was his way of saying to the players, it's time to get down to business.

O'Neill played a blinder in the last week. His handling of it all, from giving Robbie the limelight for his farewell to bringing the squad back, was superb.

The decision to not call up new faces was clever. It meant the buzz the squad will have felt from Euro 2016 has not been disrupted. Even though it's just two months since France, it's amazing how quickly the club scene can make players forget, and just seeing the same faces will bring back memories and stories. Unlike Euro 2012, though, these are all happy memories and stories. International squads are like any other group. They'll be back talking about the crack they had together, the fans, what happened, so they'll be happy to see each other. There will be a good atmosphere.

Now, of course O'Neill will change it if he needs to, but I think he's right to let the team breathe. He will have reminded them how good they were in France, but that it's now a new campaign.

The timing of Robbie's substitution against Oman was another marker in that regard. I thought it was a bit early, that O'Neill could have left him on until about 75 minutes to get another goal, but it was one more subtle message to the team that there's work to be done.

Serbia away is a tough start to a tough campaign. We're in a group where there are four teams of a similar level, with only one guaranteed to get out of it. That is a true test, but that's proper order given this is the World Cup.

Home form is going to be key so a point in Belgrade would not be a bad thing. One thing the squad will have learned from how Euro 2016 qualification panned out, too, is to keep calm and not panic if we do start slowly. We got to the party late last time.

We've evolved as a team, though, and I think there is an early opportunity to pick up points. If we can get a result in Serbia, it will send a message to Wales and Austria that we're here to win this group. That's how we should be thinking, with no-one like Germany involved, and I reckon that's how O'Neill is already thinking. Of course, the thing about this group is that we could just as easily finish third or fourth, so focus is needed.

Like Wales, we have momentum after Euro 2016 but there is the danger of a hangover. That does happen but I think, due to the age of the squad and how we developed in France, we'll grow into a better team.

The big question over the campaign is whether we can get a Wes Hoolahan replacement in the medium term, given his age. That will be key if we still play this three-in-the-middle diamond.

Harry Arter can be used there, but I'd see him more of a No 4 with a bit of thrust, who can pass the ball. James McCarthy had a difficult week in that regard with his injury, especially since he's the player who probably had more mixed emotions about Euro 2016. In a game like this, I would play Glenn Whelan just to sit and provide that stability.

From there, we have a few options now. O'Neill is unlikely to go with an out-and-out 4-4-2, and there are few different choices for the middle, but I'd expect us to be well structured above all.

Maybe the biggest question is over where Robbie Brady will play, after how well he performed in Euro 2016. He will obviously be disappointed not to have got a move from Norwich City to the Premier League on the back of that. I had something similar. When Reading got relegated in 2008, they wouldn't let me leave, and I was getting frustrated. I remember being in the corridor of the Irish squad hotel, trying to force a move. I was on the phone to Nick Hammond, the Reading director of football, asking to leave. At the same time, I wouldn't have been too disruptive because Steve Coppell had been good to me and Hammond knew that I wasn't a bad apple. I'm sure it's the same with Brady.

To try to keep me onside, Reading changed my deal and kept me on Premier League wages, although it wasn't about the money. It was about what comes with playing in the Premier League.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Norwich do something similar with Brady, and he could still move in January. I was stewing in that hotel in 2008, and he was no doubt the same, especially looking at team-mates like Jeff Hendrick get the transfers they wanted and be so excited to move. As the Oman game showed, though, it won't affect Brady's performance.

That is the thing with the Irish team, and the start of a new campaign. No matter what is happening with your club, or how you're playing, it's just different. You get into gear. You get focused.

O'Neill has already been doing a lot to make sure of that.

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