Sport Soccer

Saturday 16 December 2017

King ready to meet challenge of lifetime head on

Interim Ireland boss weighs up options as he looks to prove Loew comments off mark

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Andy Reid leads the way alongside (l-r) Glenn Whelan, Darron Gibson, Anthony Pilkington and Wes Hoolahan in Cologne last night
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"AM I nervous?" says Noel King, repeating the question. "I haven't had time to be nervous. It's been mad, a whirlwind two weeks."

After a pause, he allows the truth to slip through. "I suppose it would be unnatural not to be," he concedes. This is, after all, a quite spectacular break from the day job.

On the eve of the biggest night of his football career, a World Cup qualifier in Germany where the hosts are seeking to book their place in Brazil, the 57-year-old Dubliner is speaking in a room at the Rhein-Energie Stadion that is in keeping with the surreal build-up to a major international fixture.

The interim manager emerged into a press conference area that bore more resemblance to the VIP section of a nightclub with its fully stocked bar, dreadful background music and white leather seats.

King arrived without his captain, Robbie Keane, whose participation is seriously in doubt, and brought with him the Crystal Palace defender Damien Delaney, who is in line to appear in a first qualifier at the age of 32. "It's his competitive debut at senior level for Ireland – and mine too," quipped King. Yes, this is a strange one alright.


Giovanni Trapattoni could produce an unpredictable statement, but there was a familiarity about his quirks in the preliminaries. He would, for example, have no hesitation in making clear his starting XI and game plan.

King has consistently stated he would put up the shutters and he stayed true to that promise when pressed with specific queries. He will let the players know this morning once Keane undergoes a fitness test on his ankle that will determine if he can lead out the side here in Cologne.

The caretaker confirmed that he knew 10 of the 11 before Keane's ankle issue proved more serious than initially feared. Now, there's a couple of issues that could leave him tossing and turning, specifically the deployment of Anthony Stokes, who was in contention for a wide role, but now may find himself battling with Shane Long and Kevin Doyle for the central striking brief should Keane miss out.

King knows that Germany are supremely confident of a comfortable victory with Sami Khedira mulling over how many goals the team might score and Joachim Loew stating that a change of Irish management and players is irrelevant because the DNA effectively makes them all behave in exactly the same way. "I respect his views as a successful manager, but it's not my view," said King.

Certainly, this encounter will test the theory. From the top down, the visiting group here contains a cast of characters that nobody would have envisaged working together at the outset of Group C.

Loew's boys strolled to a comfortable 6-1 success in Dublin last October and, in addition to the change on the sideline, they will face a maximum of three Irish players who started at the Aviva. Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy are certainties, while Aiden McGeady's participation is in the balance.

As for the other victims of that German massacre, well John O'Shea is suspended, Keiren Westwood and Jon Walters are injured, Keith Fahey is in a worse way as he's clubless and still on the recovery trail, while Darren O'Dea, Keith Andrews, Simon Cox and Stephen Ward have dropped out of favour.

Trapattoni broke from habit to start with a midfield three that night in an attempt to match German dominance, but the Andrews-Fahey-McCarthy triumvirate failed to click.

Tonight, Glenn Whelan, Darron Gibson and McCarthy could get the opportunity with the latter as the furthest advanced and the other pair sitting in front of the back four in an attempt to contain Mesut Ozil.

An attacking step would be to sacrifice Whelan or Gibson, drop McCarthy back and introduce Wes Hoolahan or Andy Reid as a No 10, but that seems more plausible as a change from the bench as opposed to an original strategy.

The question mark over Keane complicates the situation as regards wingers. If King, as expected, goes with a lone central striker, then he has to figure out who to involve from McGeady, James McClean, Anthony Pilkington and which ever attackers miss out up top.

He does want his team to keep the ball better, particularly against opposition who have the deep lying Bastian Schweinsteiger and Khedira to set the tempo, but the reality is there will be moments where Ireland need an out-ball in the form of an aerial threat, be it from goal kicks or diagonal balls to alleviate pressure. Pilkington did well in Vienna and was given a positive mention. "He has a chance," stressed King.

With O'Shea and Richard Dunne absent, it is the defence that will come under serious scrutiny. The presence of Delaney beside King indicated that he is fancied to partner Ciaran Clark. Marc Wilson might still come into the midfield thinking. Yet, with so much upheaval, he may disappoint Joey O'Brien by retaining the left-back jersey.

For Delaney, a Cork man who has enjoyed and endured a chequered journey, it is a wonderful opportunity. While he acknowledged the difficulty, the good-natured veteran pointed out that he made his comeback from injury for Palace against Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge last weekend.

"I'm a better player now than I was before that game," joked Delaney as he reflected on an afternoon at Anfield where he was given the runaround. "That might have been harder than this, because they (Germany) only have one centre-forward!"

Max Kruse of Borussia Mönchengladbach is the only out-and-out striker at Loew's disposal and one theory is that he could follow the lead of Bayern Munich and use Thomas Muller in that brief. With Ireland likely to place bodies behind the ball, the local feeling is that Muller will operate out wide with either Andre Schurrle or the promising Julian Draxler the other side of Ozil.

King's last match in the dug-out was a 4-0 defeat the hands of the German U-21s. After seeing their talent at that level first hand, he indicated that the younger group could pose difficulty for the Irish seniors. It illustrates the staggering array of talent that Loew can pick from. "Put any name on the back of a white shirt and you can be sure they'll cause you problems," King continued.

There was a funny aside when a local journalist asked his impressions of the area and, on a general note, Germany's prospects of lifting the trophy in Rio next July.

"I like the Germans," he responded chirpily. "I like the German colours, and I think they're one of the favourites, I always back them in every competition." Realising how that could be interpreted, King sought to add clarity amid the laughter. "I don't mean financially, I mean backing support," he insisted. Under this new spotlight, every word matters and it will be some contrast when he returns to an environment where throwaway comments carry no danger.

After a long career grafting away in various guises within Irish football, this is the challenge of a lifetime. Upsetting the odds would turn a dream into a fairytale.

Verdict: Germany 3 Ireland 1

Irish Independent

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