What they were saying, in essence, is that the long ball — or direct football, if you prefer to call it that — is still Ireland’s best option. And, more than once, Kenny Cunningham said that we shouldn’t apologise for that.
My immediate thought was that nothing has really moved on since Giovanni Trapattoni was manager.
Because that was precisely the basis for the criticism people levelled at Trap — that he didn’t have the confidence or belief in the players that they could play out from the back. So what has changed since then?
Apart from the fact that some of the lads he had are no longer available to Martin O’Neill, like Damien Duff and Richard Dunne, while Robbie Keane is obviously not the player he was in his prime. And, with the players he does have at his disposal, Martin is clearly struggling to find a way of playing that brings the best out of them.
That’s why I find it hard to approach today’s game with any real confidence that we can get the win we so badly need.
A crucial issue, for me, is that Ireland lack players in midfield who will take responsibility to get on the ball. When Arsene Wenger came to Arsenal, the first thing he did was alter the way the team played. Previously, they had been very direct, with the ball going up to Alan Smith and Ian Wright or to John Hartson and Wright, and they’d get on with it from there. So Arsene Wenger brought people into the middle of the park — like Vieira and Petit — who would accept responsibility to get the ball from the back four and play from there.
Martin O’Neill doesn’t have that option. With Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy in there, Ireland can’t really play through midfield because neither seems to want the responsibility to dictate the play. They’re not that kind of player; they’re more the kind of midfielders who push up on the back of a longer ball. If you want to play out from the back, you need a midfielder who will accept the responsiblity to get on the ball, turn on it and play it forward. And we haven’t got that. Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy are safety-first.
And we don’t really have alternatives. There will be claims made for Wes Hoolahan but I don’t think people really trust him defensively to play as part of a central midfield pair. So they try to find him a role just behind the striker or on the left or right wing.
And, especially given the big improvement in the way we played in the second-half against Poland, you would certainly expect Martin to find a place for Wes in the team today.
We didn’t have Hoolahan against Scotland in Glasgow, nor Whelan, McCarthy and Wilson and, while I think there’s a bit of a question mark over Glenn — I would argue that there’s a case for Jeff Hendrick to replace him — the other three would certainly be in our best team and, as such, their availability should make us better overall than the team which played in Celtic Park.
I would think it’s also a certainty that Robbie Brady, another one who didn’t play in that game, will retain his place at left-back from the draw with Poland. That’s a positive too, because he’s a very confident boy, he’s good on the ball and, with his sweet left foot, he’s going to be very useful at set-pieces. We saw that against England, when some of the deliveries he put into the box were excellent. But if Brady does play, then Aiden McGeady— if he overcomes his late injury scare, of course — is going to have to play a bit like he did against England and give him a dig-out because, defensively, Brady is still learning the ropes.
Or it could be James McClean in front of him. The unfortunate thing with both McClean and McGeady is that you can never be sure what you’re going to get from them. One day they’re on song and the next they’re completely off form.
So that’s a difficult choice for Martin to make if, indeed, he sees it as a choice — for example, if McGeady is passed fit, the manager could decide to play them both.
In fact, ideally, that would be the way I would go about it today: Have Whelan (or Hendrick) and McCarthy supporting McGeady, Hoolahan and McClean, with Shane Long up top.
The back four would be Coleman, O’Shea, Wilson and Brady, with the experience of Shay Given behind them in goal.
However, if McGeady doesn’t make the cut, then I believe there’s an argument for playing Jeff Hendrick on the right although, if we’re going to play directly, then I do think we need Jon Walters in the team.
Overall, in terms of personnel, I don’t regard us as inferior to Scotland in any way, but I do think that, under Gordon Strachan, they have arrived quickly at an understanding of the way he wants them to play.
You could make a comparison with how it was when Jack Chartlon took over the Irish team. Jack simply said: This is the way we’re going to play and, like it or lump it, that’s it. If you don’t want to go along with me, you won’t be part of the future.
I don’t think that Martin has got to that point with Ireland. He experimented over the period of time he had before the competitive games kicked off but, really, nothing much has changed since then, with the result that I’m not too sure if he knows yet what his best team is. And that puts us at a big disadvantage.
Gordon Strachan wants his team to play through midfield. He encourages them to keep possession of the ball and not be frightened of playing that way, whereas we haven’t arrived at anything like that clarity. Instead, with the players we have, the long ball is probably the logical way of playing.
But therein lies another problem, in that I don’t see Shane Long as an out and out target man. Ideally with Long, you would want him playing off a big man, something similar to what he does with Pelle at Southampton. So it seems to me that Martin is stymied on a number of fronts.
The pressure is really on Ireland today and another reason I worry is that they didn’t handle it at all well in Glasgow. Okay, there was a significant element of physical battle in that game but, even so, you’d have to say that Scotland played the better football on the night. They were much more composed than we were. I’ve heard people say since that the only difference between the two sides was that we fell asleep at a corner-kick. No way. Scotland were much better.
So the way I see it is that we’re really up against it to win this match today. But it’s not as if we are without hope. Ireland can win but, if they are to do so, then it will require that the likes of McGeady (if fit) and McClean and Hoolahan and Long are on form. Staying on the bright side, I would also take a lot of encouragement from that second-half performance in the 1-1 draw with Poland. That was probably the best we’ve played in a competitive match under O’Neill. And if we are going to win today, he’ll have to get a similar kind of performance from the team.
In those 45 minutes, the Irish players showed belief, they were positive, they put some good moves together and they demonstrated a lot of character in a difficult situation, being one-down in an important game. That’s the requirement if we’re going to get the points we need against Scotland. And that’s what I’ll be looking for, and hoping for, today.
There has been a lot of media attention surrounding the fact that John Giles has not been chosen for the studio panel, covering the game on RTÉ.
All I would like to say about the matter here is that I, like Eamon, am disappointed not to be working with John today, because we’ve missed very few big games down through the years.
I want to stress that the match is what’s most important, not least because Ireland really need a victory in this one but, having said that, I do think that the panel has worked well over the years and, according to the healthy viewing figures, we’re still very popular with the public.
But it seems as if RTÉ want to change things around and we’ll just have to see what the future holds.