Thursday 19 September 2019

Stephen Hunt: 'The players are saying the right things, now they have to back it up'

Seamus Coleman. Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus Coleman. Photo: Sportsfile

Stephen Hunt

If Ireland lose heavily in Denmark tomorrow night, I fear for manager Martin O'Neill and his coaching staff. We are five years into his reign and have reached a critical phase. It could not be any flatter.

Performances have ebbed away for the last year and we need to find a good one in Aarhus and come away with a positive result, even though we are going to finish bottom of the group now after Denmark's impressive win in Cardiff.

In football, you always have that next game to put it right and redeem yourself and the Ireland squad will feel they owe the manager and the country a performance.

They should be feeling the pain, and some guilt about the pressure the manager is under. If they are not, you have to ask, has he lost the dressing room? The players are saying the right things about the manager, which tells you the answer. They need to back up that support with better performances and results.

There are not many experienced players in the squad and with Jon Walters injured, no one is really on the brink of retirement, so we need the likes of Seamus Coleman, Darren Randolph, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy to get a grasp of the problems quickly.

Historically, when things are going wrong, we have fought back. So there should be a reaction to the Northern Ireland game. And the bigger the next opponent, the better. All the lads know we need that now.

Northern Ireland were miles ahead of us but I don't think they have better players than us. Even though they have also been relegated from their group, they are in a better place than us. There is no one I would swap in our squad.

I said at the start of the Nations League that it would take time for the competition to catch the public's imagination because it is new and it has no history to it. The fact it's so complicated hardly helped people embrace it. But, as it has progressed and players, managers and supporters have grasped the format and the implications of promotion and relegation, it has caught on.

When you look at the scenes at the end of the Croatia-Spain game on Thursday and Marko Arnautovic's look of complete devastation by the side of the pitch because Austria were knocked off top spot in their group by Bosnia and Herzegovina, you realise it is a competition which could work.

It's a shame we have not come out of this first phase of the tournament with a more positive feeling. From the opening minutes in Cardiff, however, we have been struggling and playing catch-up with our rivals, who have simply been better. Wales have Gareth Bale. Denmark have Christian Eriksen. Ireland have no one like either of them.

It has been a tough year, and for none more so than Seán Maguire. I really feel for the boy who genuinely wants to play football. He came on against Northern Ireland with real enthusiasm, having played a few games for Preston. And they must be devastated to lose Maguire again on international duty and to another hamstring injury.

I would persevere with three at the back which will suit Enda Stevens who is used to playing as the left wing-back for Sheffield United with good effect. He is in a good place with his club so why not put him in there?

It keeps Seamus Coleman as the right wing-back which he plays well. We just need options inside him to play the ball through midfield. We haven't got a jinky winger so we are relying on his enthusiasm to get forward but he needs options to play off.

The big difficulty, of course, is scoring goals. Callum Robinson is the only one who is playing regularly and scoring the odd one.

I understand why O'Neill has selected Michael Obafemi, but any call-up should be based on merit and I am sure there are Irish players ahead of the Southampton youngster in the set-up who must be perplexed by the situation. Obafemi could be a very good striker, but playing for Ireland now won't change that.

As much as it kills me to admit it, watching England was highly entertaining and made me realise the massive gulf between our two sides at the moment. I think it is bigger than it has ever been.

The talented English boys, who have come through in the Premier League, are playing with real freedom, living off the memories and buzz they created at the World Cup and matching the standards they set. They're great to watch.

We need our young players to come through. Ireland have dropped below our standards and can't seem to find a way to pick it up, which happens to all struggling teams. And I want to support Darragh Lenihan. Give him a break and let him breathe. He was playing in his biggest game for Ireland in a new position, desperate to impress, and he wants to do well.

He made a couple of errors but he will learn from that. He doesn't need to be absolutely destroyed for it. This is not his fault.

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