There was a lot of positivity and even a little hint of euphoria in the air at the final whistle in the Aviva on Sunday night but, for a sobering reality check on the real meaning of Ireland’s draw with Poland, all you need to do is take a look at the Group D table today.
We’re three points at a disadvantage to one of our main rivals, Poland. We’re two points behind Scotland. And it’s the same with Germany — and I still think the world champions, simply because they have too much quality, will come good and finish by topping the group.
Those 30 rousing minutes in the second half against Poland definitely lifted everyone’s spirits but we’ve still got an awful lot to do to try and claim an automatic qualifying spot.
And even the battle for third and a place in the play-offs is not going to be straightforward.
But I would certainly take encouragement from Sunday.
It was really heartening to see that characteristic Martin O’Neill spirit and doggedness reflected in the way the team fought back. If Martin can bottle that and make sure the players have it for the forthcoming games, we might just turn the situation around.
As outlined in these pages at the weekend, I’d been deeply pessimistic going into the game. But, in fairness to the players, having gone behind in the first half they responded really well to a very difficult situation and, if our second half performance hasn’t quite made me feel I have to eat my words, I’m pleased to be left chewing on them for now.
O’Neill’s team selection was both brave and surprising. He explained in his pre-match interview that he’d gone for experience, for fellows who had been in that hot seat before, the likes of Robbie Keane, Glenn Whelan and Shay Given.
But the Given and Keane selections were a surprise to me because David Forde hadn’t done anything wrong and, now that Robbie is in decline, I do believe that Shane Long’s pace merits him a place in the starting line-up.
At the same time, I could understand O’Neill’s thinking, because there had been a distinct lack of leaders and players who could handle the atmosphere in Glasgow. And I’d imagine that also explains why he opted to start Wes Hoolahan.
People have been crying out for Wes and I think it was a case of really having to play him against Poland, because other players can spark off his tremendous enthusiasm and confidence, and his willingness to accept responsibility and get on the ball. Worryingly, that’s something you don’t see in many of the Irish players. Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy are always more inclined to take the safe pass, sideways or backwards, whereas Wes is always positive in what he wants to do.
Initially, he toiled to get in the game because of the position he was taking up in the first 20 minutes. He was actually in quite a deal of space but James and Glenn — who needed to thread their passes in between the Polish midfielders — were not being positive enough to get the ball through to him. Something had to change if we wanted to get him into the game.
Robbie Keane, who has never been a lone striker, was also struggling to get into the game. He has always been much more effective playing off a big, physical man, and when Martin switched Walters up there after Poland’s goal and Wes went wide, it was a hell of a lot better.
I don’t think there are any doubts but that Wes Hoolahan is in the side to stay now. He’s 32, mind, and playing for Norwich City, so we shouldn’t be pinning our hopes on him to be our saviour in terms of qualifying from this group. I think that would be hugely unfair on him.
Certainly, we’re a different style of team when he’s in there: we’re not route one, because he’ll come back and get on the ball. But while he was very good the other night, he wasn’t outstanding. I wouldn’t like to see people go overboard about him. I got a bit of flak on the RTÉ panel for saying he was ‘decent’ but if you want to talk about an outstanding display, just look at Gareth Bale’s performance for Wales against Israel. Now that’s what I mean by brilliance. We’ve got to keep our feet on the ground when it comes to Wes.
Robbie Brady’s selection also surprised me because he has so little experience at left-back. Yes, he’s played some games as a wing-back for Hull and he’s good and confident on the ball, but it was a big call to put him into a game of such importance, one where if we didn’t get some kind of result we would really have been in trouble.
So a brave call then and one which backfired dramatically for the Polish goal when he did something you wouldn’t want your full-back to do — playing a blind pass which put Marc Wilson in trouble, and the ball was in the back of the net in a split-second.
To be fair he didn’t let his head drop and, although he’ll be disappointed with his set-piece delivery over the course of the 90 minutes, he improved as the game went on.
In fact, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Martin might have seen enough from him on Sunday to persist with him as left-back. His personality and character in the second half shone through, as he showed that he wasn’t going to let his mistake for the goal stop him from getting forward and putting some good crosses in. And it might be that Martin is more comfortable with having a good left-footer at left-back who can start attacks off.
The other relevant point is that I thought the centre-back pairing of John O’Shea and Marc Wilson was excellent. Wilson’s involvement in the mix-up for the goal probably didn’t help his cause but otherwise, having kept Lewandowski well and truly under wraps, it was between him and O’Shea to rival Hoolahan for man of the match. And with Coleman coming on strong in the second-half, I think the back four could very well stay the same for Scotland
Shay Given should keep his position too. It was another bold call by the manager considering how few club games Shay has played but, again like Robbie, I think Martin wanted him in there for his experience. And I don’t imagine his thinking on that will change between now and the match in June.
At half-time, I was genuinely fearing for us because, having gifted them the goal, I couldn’t see how — Wes Hoolahan apart — we were going to break down the Polish defence. I don’t think it was our quality of play that put the Poles on the back foot in the second half — it was more that we raised the intensity level of our game, got stuck into them and denied them any space and so were winning the ball higher up the field.
But it wasn’t until James McClean came on for a disappointing Aiden McGeady that things really began to hot up. McClean epitomised the reaction that O’Neill wanted in the second half, and everything else flowed from his introduction. As soon as he started to go at players, Seamus Coleman began to similarly believe in himself on the right side. Hoolahan was increasingly influential too as he began to see people and pick out passes and, with the head of steam we built up, it all contributed to us getting that much deserved equaliser right at the end.
But as well as highlighting the positives for Ireland, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Poland facilitated us by appearing to settle for a draw in the second half. And it was only when McClean came on that we really began to unnerve them.
Looking ahead to the visit of Scotland, Martin will obviously have to assess again the competing claims of Robbie Keane and Shane Long. I can understand why the manager wants Robbie in and around the team. He has experience, courage and plenty of belief in himself but, if you go on form, you’d have to say the nod should go to Long.
Robbie struggles in one-on-one situations these days. He was never electric quick but he used to have a quickness about his mind and a quickness about his turning that put defenders in trouble. But I haven’t seen any of that in the three difficult games he’s started.
Meanwhile, if it’s a straight choice between James McClean and Aiden McGeady for the Scotland game, then I think he has to pick McClean. You really want more from McGeady. Everton are struggling to get that end product out of him and so too are Ireland. Take his performance in Georgia out of the equation and he has been disappointing in this campaign. McClean has that determination about him that inspires other players, although there is the flipside in that he can go overboard at times. For example, I thought he lost his way in Glasgow by virtue of being maybe too pumped-up for the match. But I really thought he made a hell of a difference on Sunday night.
And then there’s the enigmatic James McCarthy. There was a lot of comment about my column on Saturday in which I questioned his importance to the team and even wondered about his passion for playing for Ireland.
And I can’t say he really answered any of my doubts Sunday night. In fact, he had me scratching my head again for a long time. He was anonymous in the first half when, far too often, it was safety-first with him. Whatever about one player, when you have two midfielders like that, it’s very difficult to get any real moves going.
It seemed to me that McCarthy really only started to play when McClean started to play, and the crowd as well as the team were lifted. It was then that we started to see the energy McCarthy has. In the last 20 minutes, he was bursting forward and he was getting closer to the Poles and dispossessing them. It was good stuff — but 20 minutes of that from a player of his ability is not really good enough.