KEITH ANDREWS: Let the games commence

The Irish squad training at the Aviva Stadium last night. Picture: PA

It’s been a very busy week in the world of Irish football.

Since my column last Saturday, we’ve had the unveiling of the new manager, the players starting training and also that eagerly anticipated first press conference with Roy Keane.

Martin O’Neill’s official unveiling last weekend showed everybody he is still as enthusiastic and passionate as ever. I have to say that, as a football fan I have missed seeing him involved in the game as he is a very infectious character. His pride has without doubt been dented by his dismissal at Sunderland, and you could sense the determination in his tone.

On the subject of Sunderland, I thought he was fully justified in his forthright views about his dismissal and the subsequent comments made by short-lived successor, Paolo Di Canio. When Di Canio took the reins he was very critical of Martin’s regime and the state of the squad he inherited. But, regardless of what he thought, he should have had more respect for a manager who has achieved a lot more than he has — and probably ever will.

O’Neill commands huge respect within football, not just for what he has achieved, but for the way he carries himself in a very dignified manner. So for Di Canio to start criticising him was very foolish.

! This first week under new Irish management was always going to be a positive one, with the players getting to know the new staff and vice versa. By all accounts, it’s been very enjoyable and relaxed, but training also had a competitive edge as, inevitably, the players looked to impress.

Roy Keane’s press conference was built up massively for obvious reasons. Indeed, I’m only surprised it wasn’t pay per view. I thought he looked very relaxed and spoke openly about some fairly tricky issues that he’s had in the past with both the FAI and individual players. I have no doubt his time away from football will have changed him to some extent. He was clearly itching to get off the sofa with Adrian Chiles and get his boots dirty again on the training pitch.

But I do also think his stint doing television work will have helped him and would have given him clear insight into exactly how the media side works and how to deal with them in a cuter way than before.

It was evident in his press conference that he was very comfortable and didn’t seem to get bothered by any of the more loaded questions thrown his way.

I mentioned last week that if Roy Keane was clever then he could have the players running through brick walls for him, such is the admiration most of the current squad would have had for him as a player when they were growing up. And it seems this has been echoed this week by a lot of them, especially young players like Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy who have been very complimentary when speaking about him and Martin.

You could see the excitement in their eyes and I firmly believe that, with the added inspiration of the new management, these two will be huge players for us as we look to qualify for Euro 2016.

Now that all the talking is over — at least for this week — it’s finally down to the football. The atmosphere tonight will be fantastic, with it being the manager’s first game in charge and also given the huge Latvian population in Ireland. We have seen this in recent years when Poland have come to town, the atmosphere their fans generate helping make the occasion feel like a competitive match.

Given that this game is effectively the start of our preparations for the first qualifier next September, it’s going to be intriguing to see O’Neill’s team selection and formation. I’m sure he will already know some of his starting line up, as certain players pick themselves on sheer merit. But he will also be looking to experiment with partnerships to see who plays well together, whether it’s at centre half or full backs and wingers combining.

We also have players like Marc Wilson who can play in a number of positions, so it will be interesting to see where the manager sees him fitting in.

He also needs to address the possibility of playing without Robbie Keane. He has been an unbelievable servant for our nation, but by the time the first qualifier comes around he will be 34. We have been heavily reliant on his goals through the years but there will come a day when he won’t be available to us and we need to be ready for that.

I have no doubt he still has a huge role to play but we need to have a different plan if he’s not available. Or it might turn out that he is better coming on as an impact player when the tempo in a game has dropped.

Certainly, I envisage Martin utilising the experienced players in the squad to best effect, making sure there is a nice balance of youthful energy to ensure our team has a bit if everything.

Since qualification for the Euros of last summer we haven’t really given the fans much to shout about but it’s now the start of a new and exciting chapter in our history and we need to get behind the team.

I firmly believe O’Neill will tap into core values like our team spirit, togetherness and hard work ethic, as he has done with all the teams that he’s managed. It all starts tonight and the players need to treat these two matches like qualifiers to keep the momentum going that has gathered since the new management team was announced.

It’s all about trying to ensure that by next September when the qualifiers start, the whole country is buzzing with anticipation and we attack the European Championship campaign with the sole objective of qualifying.


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