It’s likely then that, while upwards of 40,000 fans will cross the Hudson River from New York into New Jersey for the friendly meeting of his Ireland side and Mexico, O’Neill is keenly aware that for Stateside sports, there is only one show in town tonight.
Thursday night marks the beginning of an NBA Finals series between the two most exhilarating teams in basketball, LeBron James’ reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the star-studded, Steph Curry-inspired Golden State Warriors.
When the indomitable James led the Cavs to the most improbable comeback to vanquish the Warriors in last year’s finals, Golden State responded by signing the best player not on either team, Kevin Durant. Yet few would back against James again confounding logic and adding to his legend with another championship ring this month.
Arguably no team sportsman the world over has been as dominant this past decade than James, now playing in his seventh-straight finals. As years pass and approaches and systems change, it’s his ability to adapt and still impose that impresses most.
Adapt and impose…O’Neill would love to do both tonight. But against dangerous, dynamic opposition and with an unorthodox cast of Irish characters, he may just settle for the former.
O’Neill will experiment at the MetLife Stadium. The Ireland manager has signalled his intention to deploy a three-man backline in a likely 3-5-2 formation but for now, the middle and top parts aren’t of as much significance as the three at the back.
While in one sense the move could be viewed as O’Neill — still seen by too many as merely a traditionalist — moving with the times after a Premier League season in which the two most outstanding sides, Tottenham and Chelsea, deployed three-man defences, it could also be argued that this is O’Neill reaching back for one of his most trusted tricks.
His glory years at Celtic, when he took them within fractions of Uefa Cup glory against Jose Mourinho’s Porto, were built on three-pronged backlines. It’s a system he knows all too well. And while tonight’s move comes in a friendly game — and O’Neill is still more likely than not to revert to a flat four for the pivotal World Cup qualifier with Austria in 10 days — it’s nonetheless intriguing.
For there is an argument that with a fully fit squad, Ireland’s current talents could be best harnessed in a 3-5-2 or perhaps the 3-4-3 system that the Premier League’s top two deployed, with Robbie Brady and Seamus Coleman as roving wing backs. Neither are here tonight — James McClean and Cyrus Christie will fill those left and right roles — but the manager is nonetheless enthusiastic.
“Even if we had [a full squad], it’s something that’s worthwhile trying,” insisted O’Neill of a back three which is likely to feature the returning Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh and either Alex Pearce or John Egan tonight. “Because if you do have to go and change systems during the course of the game, you don’t want players thinking, ‘Oh, you know, we did a little bit of 20 minutes of that in training for a couple of days, but we didn’t really do this’. It would be nice to do this in the heat of the game.” O’Neill’s eyes danced as he discussed the merits of a three-strong defence.
“It means the three centre-halves, particularly the ones either side of the main, will have to go out to the corner flag and stop crosses from coming. I think it’s essential for centre-halves to be comfortable to be drawn out. It should be a natural progression of their game.” With Austria fast advancing over the hill ahead of the crucial qualifier in Dublin 4 next week, there are boxes to be ticket outside of the defence too.
Christie’s performance will be closely monitored given Coleman’s status. Darren Randolph requires game time having finished the season on West Ham’s bench while O’Neill and Roy Keane will also hope that pairing Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick up front will help spark a partnership that flourished at Ipswich a couple of years ago.
Mexico are ranked 16th in the world, just one spot below Uruguay who Ireland, with reinforcements added, will face back in Dublin on Sunday. Having had his last visit to the home of the NFL’s New York Giants and Jets marked by a 5-1 humbling at the hands of Portugal, O’Neill is hoping to avoid anything ugly tonight. But the result, he insisted, is of secondary importance.
“The friendly games don’t concern me at all,” said O’Neill, who could be ready to blood a pair of Cork debutants with Burnley’s Kevin Long and Preston’s Alan Browne both hoping for first caps. “If that’s what we were judged by, we would do exactly what some other nations do – Switzerland and Wales don’t play them at all.
“It doesn’t really bother me in that sense. The most important aspect is to get prepared for the game against Austria, which is the be all and end all.”