That kind of heavy end of season schedule always courts controversy and polarises opinion within the game. Club managers detest them, international managers need them and I suppose the players are stuck in the middle.
It’s easy to see why these games could be valuable for Martin O’Neill, with the start of qualification for the Euro 2016 on the horizon.
In that context, it’s very important for him to maximise this time together with the squad to implement his ideas and try out different personnel and systems.
Although Martin has been in charge since November, he hasn’t had the luxury of having the players together for a sustained period so, before September, this will be his best chance to stamp his authority on the squad and get across his vision of how the team will play. Most club managers hate end of season friendlies as they would much prefer their players getting the required rest after a long and testing campaign before they have to get it all going again for pre-season training. Normally when you’ve played in friendlies at the end of the season, the club’s manager — in consultation with the sports science people — will give you extra time off to ensure you get some rest. But that then means you miss some of the pre-season training camp which is vital for both fitness and team spirit.
It’s hardly a surprise then that you often see players pulling out of these trips — but it’s fairly easy to see who the genuine ones are. Sometimes players have been carrying injuries that require a little operation or a sustained period of rest to make sure they are fit for the following season. For the perfect example, you only have to look at our own Richard Dunne and how he has come back from a serious groin injury to make his 48th appearance for QPR this season in the Championship play-off tomorrow. This has been a truly amazing feat by big Richard and so I can totally understand his decision not to be involved in these international friendlies.
Of course, in an ideal world Martin would want Richard around for at least a couple of these games but as long as the player is fit and ready for Georgia on September 7 then that has to be the priority.
Personally, I have always enjoyed the end of season games. There’s usually a bit more of a relaxed feel about them, and you often play better when you’re relaxed. Coming into our matches at the end of the 2010/11 season, for example, I had been struggling all season with groin issues and had only managed seven appearances. But two outings in the Carling Nations Cup, a qualifier against Macedonia and a friendly against Italy gave me the opportunity to play four 90 minutes games which proved vital in my recuperation.
While the upcoming games are essentially all about longer-term planning for Ireland, there is bound to be a sense of urgency for three of the sides we will be facing, as they will be finalising their preparations for the World Cup in Brazil.
Costa Rica might be outsiders but Italy and Portugal will certainly have legitimate aspirations to go far in the tournament. Since Cesare Prandelli has taken the reins he seems to have galvanised the Italians, more often than not playing three at the back to suit their personnel and style, with the mercurial Pirlo orchestrating things in front of them. Take Cristiano Ronaldo out of Portugal’s side and I think they are very ordinary but with the way this fella has been playing over the last few seasons you simply can’t rule them out.
Our near neighbours England have had a quiet build-up to this World Cup, the impression being that, for once, fans and media alike don’t expect much. Roy Hodgson has been very shrewd and clever in his preparations and also shown he’s prepared to make some big decisions. Leaving Ashley Cole out of the squad was one, as he has been one of the finest full-backs in world football for over a decade. But if Leighton Baines was going to be Hodgson’s first-choice left-back, then I would rather have the talented Luke Shaw in and around the squad gaining valuable experience, than have a veteran like Cole who might have been a negative influence if not being picked. A good spirit is vital when a squad is together for this amount of time and you simply can’t afford to have guys sulking if they are not getting into the team.
Overall, Hodgson has selected a nice blend, turning as expected to experienced heads in Gerrard and Lampard but surrounding them with young, fearless players who have pace, trickery and invention — the likes of Barkley, Lallana, Sterling and Sturridge. I think England might well surprise a few people this time round.
Brazil, playing on home soil and backed by a fanatical support, will prove very difficult to overcome but they’re not my favourites to lift the trophy. My tip to win the tournament is Germany. The heat could well be a stumbling block for them but with their proven ability to dictate the pace of games, I think they can deal with it. Germany have an abundance of talent as well as tournament experience, but the main reason I am going for them is that they appear to have a terrific team spirit, something which can make all the difference when the margins are tight at the very highest level.
Having said all that, the way my predictions in this column have panned out over the season, suggests you should get down to the bookies without delay and lump on Germany going out in the group stages!
Enjoy the summer.