And I think the games against Switzerland and Slovakia were particularly worthwhile exercises for Martin O’Neill as he reviews and refines his options for France.
To begin with, it’s always helpful for a manager to get his squad together, to reconnect with the players and remind them of what it’s all about. But on top of that, with the Euros firmly in mind, these two games allowed Martin to get a look at those fringe members of his squad who don’t often get a run-out, as well as giving him the opportunity to assess if newcomers like Eunan O’Kane, Alan Judge and Shane Duffy might be ready to make the breakthrough.
Duffy was probably the one who did himself the most favours with his impressive performance at centre-half against the Swiss. His career comeback is something I’m personally very pleased about because, when I was with the FAI, it was me who talked to his family, the boy himself and his then Everton manager David Moyes about Shane choosing to play for us.
And then when he did break into the senior squad, under Giovanni Trapattoni, he suffered that ferocious freak injury in a training game which, for a time, had people fearing for the young man’s life, not just his career.
So I am absolutely delighted for him that he did so well last Friday. He hasn’t had it easy at club level either and, having failed to break through at Everton, he has had to bounce back and prove himself in the Championship. But he’s a strong, uncompromising centre-back and there has always been a place for guys like that in our team. And, after last Friday, I really think he has now given himself a big chance of being in the squad which goes to France.
Eunan O’Kane, who uses the ball well, is also an option if we’re going to play through midfield — but that all depends on how Martin wants the team to go about their business when they’re out at the Euros.
As for Judge, given that he was played out wide against the Swiss, it might even be that it will come down to a choice between him and Aiden McGeady for the final 23.
If so, my guess is that Martin will show loyalty to the lads who got us to the finals — and McGeady did make a significant contribution, albeit very early on in the campaign.
One of the disappointments of the Easter games was Harry Arter missing out through injury, since I’ve liked the look of him playing for Bournemouth. But even if he does stake a late claim in the match against the Dutch in May, he too will be fighting for a place in the squad rather than the team because, when it comes to the tournament itself, I can’t see the manager deviating from the players he used in the wins against Germany and Bosnia in the qualifiers.
In terms of exactly how Ireland should approach things in the summer, I’ve always been of the opinion you should pick the best players at your disposal and then find a system that suits them. To get Wes Hoolahan on the pitch, the tip of the diamond — as we saw against Slovakia — is probably his best position. You’ve also got Jon Walters who can drop back into midfield and Shane Long who is now our most effective forward. If those three are fit, you would want to see them all starting.
Then you’ve got three midfielders — probably Jeff Hendrick, Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy — requiring the full-backs — Seamus Coleman and, if Martin plays him at left-back, Robbie Brady — to provide the width.
Certainly, in the modern game, you don’t want to be playing two lads in the middle of the park, as we did with David Meyler and Stephen Quinn against Switzerland, because they can get overrun and allow the opposition to get at your back four all too easily.
Of course, any prediction in March of the team and the tactics for France comes with a literal health warning — we can’t be sure that, come June, one or more of those whose places are nailed-on in the starting IX won’t have been ruled out by injury.
Rob Elliot looked certain of a place in the squad up until that dreadful twist of fate on Tuesday night. I feel very sorry for him. But I’m afraid that’s just part and parcel of a footballer’s career.
Darren Randolph, David Forde and Shay Given now look like they will be the three goalkeepers travelling to France but it’s not so clear cut who will be number one for the tournament itself. The problem for Randolph is he’s not playing regularly for West Ham and, judging by what Martin has done in the past, if Given gets in the Stoke team in Jack Butland’s absence — and does any way well — he will be our goalkeeper at the Euros.
Whether Shay would actually be the best choice is hard to say simply because Randolph isn’t getting his game in the Premier League — although, when he has played, for West Ham and for Ireland, he has done really well. So that’s a difficult one for the manager.
Overall, having seen the qualifying campaign and now these two friendlies, and with just two more games to come before the Euros, I would say that Ireland are entitled to travel with new-found belief to the tournament.
In particular, I thought the climax of the qualifying campaign, with that play-off victory over two legs against Bosnia, was handled very professionally, with a good team spirit, good organisation and good defence.
I also think that the standard of the opposition in our group at the finals was probably overrated when the draw was first made.
Take Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of the equation and I don’t see the Swedes as anything to write home about.
I also think the Italians are pretty ordinary — yes, they have a history of being a good tournament side but, these days, they just don’t seem to have the players, as evidenced by the fact Southampton’s Pelle is the best forward they’ve got.
Belgium certainly have the most accomplished individual players but they have yet to convince me they can really impress as a team.
From what I’ve seen of them, they don’t play with any fire in their bellies.
And when you consider the fortunes this season of the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard, they also have some major worries to contend with over injury and/or loss of form.
That said, it will still be a tough ask for us to get something from that match. But I firmly believe that we are more than capable of getting results in the other two games, and progressing from the group.