Sunday 18 February 2018

Stephen Hunt: Martin O’Neill’s lovely Seamus Coleman gesture a clever piece of man-management

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill with Seamus Coleman
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill with Seamus Coleman
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

A month is a long time to keep players fully fit, concentrated and in peak condition — mentally and physically — for an important World Cup qualifier and that will have been one of Martin O’Neill’s biggest challenges of the last few weeks.

The Ireland manager is being intelligent in his preparations and the build-up to the all-important game against Austria at the Aviva next month. He brought the Championship players in early, and then gave them the weekend off, and the preparations will gather pace when the Premier League players join up this week.

He has invited Seamus Coleman back into the group ahead of the Austria game. I like that. It’s a clever piece of man-management once again from a manager who seems to know how to give the Ireland players a lift at the right time. Bringing the captain back in will do that for Seamus and the whole squad, I’m sure.

After two weeks off, the ball will feel alien for some of the players. It is amazing how in a short space of time, if you don’t kick a football, you can feel like you have lost the touch and feel of it. It is rather like getting into a different car after you have driven the same one for years and it can take a day or two to adjust.

This week, the lads will work hard for the first three days and it will be helpful being in a different environment, after the end of a long season, which can keep them fresh and ready. The concentration and energy levels are the most important things for the Austria game.

The two friendlies against Mexico and Uruguay feel like a boxer warming up for a title bout. It is like Katie Taylor having two rubbish fights leading up to the main event and dropping down the rankings to get some minutes in the ring. It will never have the same intensity but can still be useful.

When these friendlies were first announced, I had my doubts about the timing and usefulness of the game against Mexico in New Jersey in particular, other than the financial benefits, presumably, and the chance to play in front of Irish fans in the States.

But actually, this will be a good build-up game for the members of the squad who have just one or two caps, and have not had many starts. It may feel like the team to start against Austria picks itself, but there are still places up for grabs.

O’Neill is capable of throwing anybody into his side and he has pulled off surprises with his team selections in the past. That is an incentive for the team that plays in America and gives them something to look forward to. If you have any self-doubt or you are not a guaranteed starter, this is a great opportunity to get into his thoughts, and the team to face Austria on June 11.

It is also more helpful to have the friendlies before the qualifier. If it was the other way around, players would be certain to pull out of the squad. I remember after I played for Ireland in a qualifier against Macedonia, we were due to play Italy in Belgium three days later and I didn’t really want to play.

I had an ankle injury and I didn’t want to upset my club but Trapattoni was absolutely insistent that I played, so I did. If I had been allowed to choose, I would not have played and would have missed a memorable win over the Italians.

The Mexico game is very similar to that friendly in Liege because it is a great opportunity for players to show they deserve to be in the team.

As for Uruguay, that promises to be a good test a week before the Austrians come to Dublin. That will not be a friendly, that is for sure. Uruguay don’t really do friendlies and their players are always looking to get on the front foot, no matter what the occasion.

Although O’Neill, I am sure, has a good idea of the team he would like to start with against Austria, there are bound to be places up for grabs and positions he would like to keep open in the fortnight ahead. This could be an important couple of weeks for a handful of the Ireland squad.

I have said for a long time that David McGoldrick will have a big part to play in this World Cup campaign. He is the best striker Ireland have in terms of football ability. I saw first-hand at Ipswich the quality he has, but he has suffered little niggles and injuries. When he has come on as a sub for Ireland in the past, he’s looked like he has already been on the pitch for an hour.

International football is tough, particularly when you are new and coming into games as a substitute. But you have to be ready at all times to get on that pitch and make a difference for your country.

Like McGoldrick, the majority of players in the squad play in the Championship, but I do not see that as a problem and that is the way it is always going to be with the Ireland squad. There are so many foreign players in Premier League squads now, not just the starting XIs, that it is becoming increasingly difficult for young Irish and even British players to break through.

When I was a Championship player I played some of my best football for Ireland. It is a totally different game and team so it evokes different emotions and feelings in a player and they can inspire you. That’s what McGoldrick needs.

He needs to get fully fit and be ready to get into the pace of games when he gets his opportunity because there is no doubt that he is capable of producing a bit of magic which can make all the difference in tight games, particularly at this level.

It will be interesting to see what Aiden McGeady can bring to the team now. He has been in brilliant form for Preston and he needs to bring that to Ireland because he is at the right age to be a major contributor.

The season on loan from Everton will give him confidence. We have been saying that Aiden is a confidence player for 10 years, since he was at Celtic, and it is time he put together a string of good performances for Ireland. After that, his next move is a big one for him and hopefully he can get his head down in the summer, rest, re-group and be even stronger next season.

And then there is James McClean, who is heading to America out of his own choice, which is another interesting piece of O’Neill man-management.

For him to go shows how much he loves playing for Ireland and maybe he feels he needs games because he didn’t get many starts at West Brom, after scoring the winner for us in Vienna.

I had been one of the critics who said that McClean needed to start concentrating on his football. He may not have played every week for Tony Pulis, but he has certainly done that and turned into a crucial player for Ireland in this campaign. He is clearly determined to do everything he can to get us to Russia.

We perhaps look at the strongest individuals available to the manager when we go through the possible starting XI we would have for the Austria match. But, as Jose Mourinho pointed out last week, it is not just about your own side and how you will attack in games, it is about defending and exploiting your opponents’ weaknesses.

We have to adopt a similar attitude. We have to find a way to win this game.

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