Tuesday 24 April 2018

Stephen Hunt: Tedious Uruguay tie at least gives players a shot at tackling Austria

Daryl Murphy of Republic of Ireland during squad training at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Co Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Daryl Murphy of Republic of Ireland during squad training at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Co Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

No-ONE will be particularly worried about the outcome of the second friendly today when Uruguay come to town, but it would be nice for Martin O’Neill and the team to get a positive performance and result before the big one next Sunday.

Friday’s game against Mexico was important for a number of players who desperately needed game-time ahead of the Austria match. David McGoldrick and Daryl Murphy will both have benefitted from time on the pitch in New Jersey.

The pair of them have not played for about a month so they needed a run-out if they are going to be of any use for the Austria clash and they are required to come off the bench, or even start this qualifier.

But what a pitch in New Jersey! It is bad enough getting hurt in a competitive international game, never mind being injured for the first few weeks of the summer because you have been forced to play on a dodgy pitch.

As soon as the lads saw the state of areas of the pitch at the MetLife Stadium they will have had concerns. Judging by the pictures on social media, there were areas with large holes and gaps on it and clearly it was not fit to host an international game.

I have no problem with friendlies in America and these are good money-spinning events for the FAI, as well as an opportunity to play in front of the Irish fans over there, but what is the point if the pitch is not up to scratch?

It may sound like an excuse, but a nice pitch and surroundings give you so much more confidence. When you arrive at a beautiful stadium like that, but see that the pitch is absolutely horrendous, the first thought is ‘there is no way I am putting myself out to get injured in a game like this.’ It puts fear in the mind and immediately takes the edge off your game. If we can’t find the right pitches to play on when we go to America, we shouldn’t go.

The way I look at it, would Roy Keane have been prepared to play on a surface like that? Of course he wouldn’t. So why should we expect the Ireland players of today to put their bodies on the line?

It should be an opportunity to make an impression on the management team at a time of the year when you need to be sharp and the body is not completely perfect. It is difficult to impress on a bad surface and eventually it takes away your edge without you knowing it as the game continues.

The Ireland players will be happy to be back at the Aviva today in familiar surroundings and anyone who made their debut over in America will be very keen to play in this one in front of a home crowd and their families. But I can’t see there being massive changes.

There are still places up for grabs for the Austria game, although I would say only one or two are undecided. The centre-forward place is certainly up for grabs and if we are going to play a big man, it has to be Daryl Murphy. But he needs to play today if he is going to play next week. He needs a game.

He is not like Willie Mullins’ horse Quevega, who won the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham six times in a row. She could just turn up and win. Murphy is more like a racehorse who needs to get around in one or two races at other courses to get up to speed, which is why I would like to see him play today.

With Shane Long out, the other alternatives are Jon Walters, who can play as a centre-forward, or David McGoldrick, who has all the ability to be Ireland’s number nine, as I have said previously.

One striker who has impressed me is Cork City’s Sean Maguire, who is set to join Preston North End. If he has all the attributes, I don’t see why we should have to wait for him to join an English club. After a year of watching a lot of games, I would back myself on judging players — and from what I have seen of Maguire, he looks pretty good, ready to make the move to the Championship, establish himself at an English league club and become an Ireland regular. I think he will be OK.

We haven’t seen a centre-forward come out of the woodwork for a while and if we go back to the Wales game, and the last 10 minutes after Neil Taylor had been sent off, it was crying out for Robbie Keane. Let’s hope that Austria is not the same and we can get the first goal, because I would back us to keep a clean sheet. The big question is can we get that goal?

All that matters this week is the Austria game, so the friendlies against Uruguay and Mexico are almost irrelevant and nobody will really care about the results and performances in those two games if we get three points against the Austrians.

It matters to the players, of course. If you score any goal for Ireland, or you are named man of the match, then it is important to you. And someone like Stephen Gleeson, who has worked his backside off for years and never sought attention or coverage, will never forget the game against Mexico on Friday, and scoring his first goal for his country.

Once the Uruguay game is out of the way tonight, it will feel like a long week ahead for the Ireland squad, but Martin O’Neill is the perfect man for the big-game build-up and he seems to know how to handle the preparations so that everyone is focussed. And it will only take a quick look at the clips from the Wales game to get the emotions flowing again.

Whatever we do against Uruguay, it would be nice to attack. If we leave ourselves open to their counter-attack, so what? Let’s see how we react if we are going forward, playing aggressively and they come at us on the break. Can we go on the front foot, be more expansive and play?

I accept that it is not easy because we don’t have the players but let’s try and score more than one goal and take the pressure off the players. If we lose by three or four today, then the manager can say that he takes responsibility because we wanted us to be really positive, get shots in and be aggressive.

This is an interesting time in Irish football because if you look at the under-age teams now, under the direction of Ruud Dokter, they are all playing the same way and there is brilliant consistency from all the sides and all the coaches.

But when it comes to the senior squad, we are still the same team we were under Giovanni Trapattoni, only with Martin O’Neill’s superb man-management getting the best out of individuals. We are still direct but Martin has a way of dressing things up and he is very good at his job.

Can we get under-age players to play that way when they get to the senior team? Can the senior team play that way? It is great that we are encouraging young boys to pass, pass, pass and are using more expansive, attacking systems and formations. It will take time to bring that into the senior team, because we have been so well-served by the more direct approach. But what is the point of spending all that time and effort on young players’ development if it is not going to be used in the senior team?

I understand that it is more important to have a structure in place and to let the young lads play their games in that structure, let them be free and go out and express themselves. But there has to be something in place to embed that way of thinking into the first team, and then play that way. Is that going to happen?

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport