Looking back on the match against Greece, I genuinely think there were a lot of positives to take from it.
As it was “only” a friendly, it could have been an easy option for some players to possibly opt out and concentrate on the intense club schedule, but it shows the team spirit we have and the only absentees were entirely genuine.
As I was coming out of the tunnel just before the game to head to the bench I met James Nolan’s family, who were there to accept an award from Uefa for the Irish fans at the Euros. I have no idea what the family must still be going through on a daily basis and I know this probably won’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things but, from a players’ point of view, what happened to James genuinely touched us all. Anyone who was over in Poland will know what I mean when I say that our fans made that tournament what it was and to think we came home without one of those great supporters was an absolute tragedy. My thoughts and prayers will always be with James and his family.
If I’m being entirely honest I wanted to start Wednesday’s match but recognise the need for younger players to be given game time. I thought we started the game very well, really dictating possession and, despite the anticipated and understandable low attendance, the lads got the crowd going by taking the game to a Greek side who have started their World Cup qualifying campaign very well. It wasn’t played like a friendly with tackles flying in and the odd confrontation.
In the first 20 minutes or so we should have been in front, not only creating chances but also having a blatant penalty appeal for handball turned down, ironically in front of our watching friend Michel Platini.
Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady linked up fantastically well, causing lots of problems. Shane Long was a constant nuisance up front, by stretching them in behind with his tireless running and being the physical presence needed when we had to go direct. I couldn’t be happier to see the plaudits Shane has had over the last year or two. He is a fantastic lad who has had to be very patient, whether it’s been at Reading, often playing second fiddle to Kevin Doyle, or with Ireland. He has transformed himself as a player over the last few seasons and now plays with great belief and confidence.
Any defender will tell you they don’t relish playing against Shane as he never gives them a moment’s peace. I hope he stays in the team and gets the chance to show the Irish fans why he is such a crowd favourite at West Brom.
In the end, it was disappointing not to get the result our performance probably deserved. I thought we mixed it up very well, playing some good controlled football and occasionally looking for Doyler or Longy down the sides or in behind.
But, above all, two things stood out for me. The first being the man of the match display by Seamus Coleman. I’ve said before that what possibly went against Seamus in the past was that he was seen as a very attack-minded full back. But having proved in recent games what a fierce and dependable defender he is, his biggest asset in my eyes is how quickly he can turn defence into attack with his direct running and neat passing. There’s no doubt he has been the one massive bonus for us since the summer and he obviously used the disappointment of not making the 23-man squad for the Euros to make sure he wouldn’t be in that position again. He has now made that position his own.
The other thing that struck me the other night was the difference it made having Wes Hoolahan playing in the hole in the second half. I’ve known for quite a while what a fine player Wes is and have often sung his praises. Probably the kind of player we have lacked in recent years, he was an absolute pleasure to play with, constantly wanting the ball, making angles, trying to start our attacks and often being the one to win the ball back as well.
With all the new options at his disposal, it’s going to be very interesting to see what the manager does come the huge double-header in March, assuming he has a fully fit squad to choose from. From a personal point of view I think a lot of people may see it as a straight fight between myself, Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy for two spots. I’m all for competition for places and think it’s very healthy, but I have to say if I was the one to lose out I would be extremely disappointed.
Meanwhile, it’s back to club duty today for Bolton, against Barnsley, and I’m hopeful we can get three points on the board to continue the manager’s unbeaten start. We saw last year with Reading what is possible when you become hard to beat and get in the habit of nicking games by the odd goal. We know we have the squad here to achieve success. The belief is starting to show now and, hopefully, we can creep up that table to mount a serious promotion push.
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