Sunday 21 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: Long makes his case on night of experimentation against turgid Swiss

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He can look scatty and pre-occupied at work, a nervy sacristan hearing mice stir in the attic.

In fact, Martin O'Neill routinely radiates the air of someone with more pressing things on his mind. So on this equivocal night, one trembling with the edginess of audition, his animation was that of a man whose head was a blizzard of complex, distant things. What did he see? Who caught his attention?

Was he specifically looking for someone?

Beating Switzerland offered the night a wholly agreeable vibe but, given the climate of experimentation, you had to believe it delivered just keyhole glimpses of useful information. O'Neill spent much of it standing, hands in pockets, ruminating.

An early Ciaran Clark goal set the muscular visitors a chase they could not quite summon the refinement to complete and, on the hour mark, O'Neill began emptying his bench like a captain waving his merry crew away on shore-leave.

So the evening had a faintly bawdy tenor, the sense of a Good Friday crowd tickled pink at out-smarting the holiday no-drinking ordinance that, to our Swiss guests, presumably came as some kind of quaintly medieval oddity.


Then again the visitors' section was largely empty, so perhaps our Godliness just got the better of them.

Stadium bars opened at 5.30 and were quickly under pressure yet, ten minutes before kick-off, the teams were led out by a colour party from the army's Seventh Battalion to great swathes of empty seats. If it all fed the cliché and stereotype of an Irish get-together (and there was a 'dizzy penalty competition' at half-time) , there was still something movingly dignified about the preliminaries, a re-enactment of the Proclamation reading and the singing of 'Amhrán na bhFiann' by an Omagh peace choir.

The game itself unspooled, accordingly, at room temperature, both teams struggling to synthesise real competitive energy with the understanding that everything just now is essentially a game of shadows. And, in truth, it must be a moot point if O'Neill's winnowing and refining of his final 23 has any great distance to travel.

He will suggest differently, of course, because to do otherwise would be to invite torpor and sterility into these gatherings.

And perhaps his mind is still cloudy on one or two positions but, of last night's starting eleven, you sensed that perhaps only Shane Duffy and Alan Judge had a real shot at negotiating their way from real distance into the manager's summer plans. Whatever else caught O'Neill's eye probably awaits narration some miles beyond the finals in France.

Maybe the most strident echo resounding through the night then was Shane Long's campaign, not so much to catch the manager's attention, but hit him over the head with what many of us consider glaringly strong credentials for a starting place in Paris on June 13.

Did he succeed?

Not entirely I suppose. He didn't score for a start. But the pace and urgency of his movement, the sense of pressing defenders into quicker decisions than they're ever entirely comfortable with (plus the fact he's now a regular Premier League starter), those essentially simple qualities all make a more compelling case for him than can be summoned for better goalscorers.

His goal against Germany was replayed on the giant stadium screen just before kick-off and he almost had his fifteenth international strike here on 37 minutes only for a powerful header from Seamus Coleman's cross to snap back off Yann Sommer's crossbar.

The game offered a peculiar point of intersection between the careers of Long and his strike partner for the night, Kevin Doyle. Two men who began their professional careers together now chasing very different targets. Long needs to be at the epicentre of business in France; Doyle sought simply to be there.

Sadly, having opened impressively, Doyle's night ended abruptly, a 22nd-minute clash with Timm Klose forcing him off with what looked a serious leg injury. Long bent low over his old colleague as the stretcher-bearers readied him for departure. There and then you had to fear, a proud international career might have been ending.

Soon after, Valon Behrami charged aggressively through Long from behind down the West Stand tramline and the Tipperary man's anger wasn't difficult to trace.


He was hauled ashore eventually in the 83rd minute, met with warm embraces from both O'Neill and Roy Keane and serenaded home, presumably, by the relieved sighs of Swiss defenders. With Long departed, they no longer needed a ten-yard start on danger.

Ireland's early goal had an Old Testament cut to it, Robbie Brady's corner guided goalward by Duffy for Clark to glance home a simple finish. Two minutes on the clock and, already, a decadent quiver rippling across the supposedly abstinent old town.

Thereafter, it ebbed and flowed as a game on that cusp between being friendly and, well, less than that.

The Swiss were palpably trying but O'Neill's Ireland, no matter the personnel deployed, consider high, relentless application as the basic starting point to any game. They were often error-prone here, but never feckless.

Substitute Shani Tarahaj did go close after a brief outbreak of defensive confusion, but Darren Randolph remained largely untested throughout, his calmness and sureness of handling continuing to emit a reassuring sense of authority.

Judge might have had a debut goal approaching half-time, heading just wide from another Irish corner and, all in all, both he and Duffy made favourable impressions.

And substitute Eunan O'Kane might have put his name in lights when clean through in the 90th minute, but his shot fizzed narrowly wide, Sommer beaten.

Conclusions to draw? O'Neill probably knows full well the men he will lean on in France but, injuries to Doyle and Daryl Murphy apart, this was a worthwhile exercise.

He looked a man with higher climbs already on his mind.

Irish Independent

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