Friday 19 January 2018

Stephen Hunt: It is easy to criticise and panic. This is not the time for panic

Shane Long, right of Republic of Ireland reacts after his header goes wide Photo: Sportsfile
Shane Long, right of Republic of Ireland reacts after his header goes wide Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

There will be plenty of cheap shots aimed at the Ireland team in the run-up to Tuesday's massive game against Serbia in Dublin but Martin O'Neill and his players just need a sense of calm in the camp and a quiet determination to prove people wrong.

Yes, we watched a poor Ireland performance last night. But why are we surprised Georgia made nearly four times as many passes as Ireland? Yes, we should be better. But on the night we weren't.

It is going to take time to progress and become the team we want to be. In the meantime, we grind results out. We just have to be better than we were last night but it is easy to criticise and panic. This is not the time for panic. If we beat Serbia on Tuesday, we are top of the group.

We came up against a well-drilled, well-coached team who had nothing to lose and were allowed too much possession. We should have been more controlled after going in front so early, and there were far too many last-ditch tackles and clearances.

It was not our night because we did not pass the ball, we weren't in control of the game, and we allowed Georgia too many chances. Even though we got the early goal, it felt edgy and we looked rusty, which is not surprising at this stage of the season and with a few players lacking game-time.

The key within the squad is that they must not get too down. We are better as the underdogs and we are definitely the underdogs on Tuesday night now. What is important is that we are ready for that game, and forget about this one. That will be the message from Martin O'Neill over the course of the next few days.

Before the game, I felt Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy would be crucial at set-pieces, especially from Robbie Brady's deliveries, but who could have predicted such a perfect start with Duffy scoring his first international goal?

From the opening few minutes of the game, he went from a rash clearance in the first few seconds to scoring a classic header. Clark deserves as much credit for his part in the goal and his old-fashioned challenge on the keeper.

It was the perfect start for Ireland but going ahead that early was always going to leave the team with a long time to hang on and defend the goal. The game was too open then and we still starting to sit deep far too early and give the home side possession. And that is always dangerous, no matter who we are playing against.

The atmosphere in the stadium may not have matched previous games in Tbilisi. The place was half-full and that nasty, ugly tension in the ground was definitely missing. But there were other factors to deal with. Playing in 34 degrees is not easy for Irish teams and the pitch was firm, which the lads will have taken on board on Friday night and in the warm-up.

We probably all feared the worst when Jon Walters was injured for Burnley last week and missed the first day of training. Only he will know how sore his ankle was and how much pain he went through to play. It takes guts to play when you know you are not going to be at your best, and to put yourself out there. When the team news came in and his name was in the starting XI, it came as no great surprise and my first thought was that this is a guy who deserves great credit for the way he goes about his job.

For us, it's about entertainment, passion and a journey to create more memories. For players, when you're in that bubble, it's just about playing for your country, working hard, performing and trying to impress your manager and the supporters. Walters does all those things and deserves his 50th cap.

And he didn't have role which enabled him to get a breather. He was playing on the right, not as a striker, and much deeper than he is used to. It was pretty obvious that Jano Ananidze is their best footballer, and Walters was left with the tricky task of marking him. Inevitably he played his way into the game so he wasn't caught out.

We looked comfortable for the first half-hour, even though they had more possession. The midfield three looked in control without having the ball as much as the home side, and the rotation of the forward pressing was good. And Ireland are good at this because we stick to our strengths. There are still changes to the side that can be made for Tuesday which will make us more effective as an attacking side at home. I can see us going with two upfront - Daryl Murphy was effective when he came on - and the manager might look at a change at centre-back.

That might enable James McClean to be in better areas. It is tough trying to get close to good attacking players when you are used to being that player. I have been there myself, chasing around, trying to get a tackle in and have an influence. When you can't, it takes a weapon away from the team.

That is what we will need on Tuesday. Some more positivity, throughout the team, throughout the stadium, throughout the media. This is a blow, but it's far from over.

Sunday Indo Sport

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