Saturday 21 September 2019

Stephen Hunt: Senior players must channel pain of previous defeats

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill

Stephen Hunt

Patrice Evra should have been happy. It was late on a November night in Paris and France had just qualified for the World Cup. I was sharing a car with him and John O'Shea as we made our way to the airport to fly back to England in Manchester United's private jet. But Evra wasn't happy, he was just relieved. France had been lucky, and they needed Thierry Henry's hand to help them, but myself and John were devastated. We knew how close we had come and now there was no second chance.

For some countries like France, a play-off is a back door, a comment on their own failings and qualifying that way will come with a different kind of pressure. I sometimes think about that car journey. Was Evra not only relieved because they had chanced their way to the tournament, but was he realising too that France would get found out? In fact, that night in Paris we had already found them out.

To lose in that way made everything worse, but losing a play-off in any way is devastating and if Ireland fail over the next eight days, there won't be many within the squad happy that they've just made it to the play-offs.

Ireland will always begin a qualifying campaign full of high expectation, but the truth is we will always be relieved to have the safety net that is a play-off.

There may have been expectations of qualification in this campaign because the top two were going to go through but, as a player, you always have a play-off in your head. It would be great to qualify automatically and arguably Ireland blew their best chance against Poland, but you know you don't want to miss out on this opportunity.

I was involved with two play-offs with Ireland, that one against France in 2009 and against Estonia two years later.

A play-off is different to any other qualifier. The first thing you do as a player when the draw is made is google the team and check who plays in the position you'll be facing. You might have a look at the form as well and how they've done, but players tend to keep their knowledge limited.

Between qualifiers, it is very easy to forget about them, but when a play-off comes along, the weeks before it at club level can drag and become a distraction.

These are games every player wants to play in so sometimes it's hard having club matches where you can pick up injuries, especially this weekend.

Of the two play-offs I played, I looked forward to the France game more. We were in good form then and I felt sharp so I knew we had a chance. Estonia was an easier game but our form wasn't as good; we had played well to get a draw in Moscow but there wasn't the same life in the side that there had been a couple of years beforehand.

My concern for this Ireland team is that Germany remains a bit of a freak performance. Martin O'Neill won't pick the midfield that started that game and if we play as we did in Poland then Bosnia will be favourites.

O'Neill spoke about tired legs after the Poland game but I hope he is more positive in the camp. We have the same turnaround between the two matches this week and it's nothing unusual for players to play twice in four days. Even if it was, there's nothing we can do about it so there's no point going on about it.

Let's be clear: getting to the play-off was the expectation when this campaign began. Beating the world champions was great, but it won't mean as much if we don't qualify at the end of it.

I hope Ireland can channel the energy of the Germany game. That is the template now. I expect the players who have been struggling with injury to make it and hopefully there will be no fresh concerns this weekend. O'Shea and Jon Walters are big absentees for the first game. Walters has been immense in the campaign. You know what he's going to do for you and he won't stop doing it. Every possible replacement is a gamble.

The senior players will play an important role this week. They have been through this before and they will help take the younger players along.

I would make Bosnia slight favourites but it's not France, where we feared every mistake would be punished, and it's not Estonia, which was a walk in the park. With the right attitude and approach, Ireland can be hopeful.

There is no safety net now and it doesn't matter how we get there. The players who remember Paris will know that relief is a much better feeling than the despair those of us sitting in the car with Evra felt on that journey home.

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