With four games gone and six to play, Ireland will only be reaching the half-way stage of their European Championship campaign at the end of next March when Poland come to the Aviva for the first of two successive home games, although the second won’t come along until over two months later against Scotland in June.
And after that, it’s almost another three months again to the September double-header away to Gibraltar and at home to Georgia before the group finally wraps up in October with another double-header at home to Germany and away to Poland.
Such is the protracted, stretched out nature of an international qualifying campaign, and it makes it virtually impossible for Martin O’Neill to speak with anything like complete authority about how his team’s chances of qualifying for France 2016 might be enhanced, the manager knowing only too well a lot can happen over the next four months — and beyond – which will be entirely out of his control.
“Knowing your best team, these things change in a monthly basis,” he observes. “I think I have a fair idea and it’s nice to know now that some of those who played against the USA can actually compete at this level.
“But you might have a situation, for instance, where somebody who played really well on Tuesday might not be a regular player at club level in the month leading up to Poland. So having done so well in the game the other night and maybe hanging their hat on that, they may not be playing regularly at club level then.
“This is not a plea to players to do so; sometimes managers don’t pick them. But what I’m saying is if you aren’t playing regularly, let’s say in the month leading up to Poland, then you lose a bit of that sharpness, you lose a bit of that performance maybe you had three and a half months ago, which you thought was excellent and would get you into the squad.
“It might still do but by that particular time you’d have to assess the player’s physical condition when we meet on the Monday of that week and see how they’re feeling about it if they haven’t played. I’m hoping that’s not going to be the case but it might be for one or two.”
Tuesday’s two-goal hero Robbie Brady – who impressed going forward from the left-back berth normally occupied by Stephen Ward — is one player who, mainly because of injury, has had nothing like the amount of desired game time with Hull.
“He’s getting in now,” O’Neill points out. “He’s a lovely footballer. It’s nice to actually say that to him. He was great on Tuesday and he’s genuinely a really nice lad. I don’t know where people got this impression of him before but in my dealings with him he’s been really excellent. (But) things happen at club level and between now and March is a long time, long time for me. These players go back now and start thinking about their club futures and we’ll see.”
For now, O’Neill is pleased that, after the disappointment of Glasgow, Ireland were able to end this international season with a winning result on Tuesday and, even more so, that a couple of green buds caught the eye in the 4-1 victory over the US.
“It was always my intention,” he says. “I’m a year in the job now and we’ve added a couple of players the other night and I think you could see that can give us a wee bit of extra quality over the course of time. Cyrus Christie looked excellent going forward, as he is doing for Derby County on a regular basis. I had an opportunity to see him quite a number of times and I knew he wouldn’t let us down. It’s a nice option, a nice thing to have there. He put a marker down on Tuesday night which was great and I think he feels pretty good about it.
“Young McGoldrick didn’t have a pre-season — I think you could tell that at times in the game — but he gives you a little bit of something that I think we possibly hadn’t possessed up there. He’s a different type of player to anything we’ve had before.”
Fresh player options, he suggests, could also enhance the prospects of more tactical flexibility next year.
“You never know in time whether players can play in different positions. Someone asked me six or seven months ago did I think Seamus Coleman could play wing-back. I said I think he could.
“But sometimes full-backs like that wee bit of protection so that if they’re isolated out there they’re almost treated like a winger. That is something we would want to have a look at.
“Maybe to get our best players on the field we might have to look at a 3-5-2 formation at home which I think is possible. The problem with all of those things, if you want to be really technical about it, is sometimes centre-halves don’t really like to go out to full-back positions. But I’m not so sure, with what we have here, that the players would be reluctant to do it, as long as we practiced it.”
Of course, O’Neill knows only too well that time on the training pitch with his squad will be as short as the gap to the resumption of competitive action will be long.
Meantime, he’ll be clocking up the road miles and working the phones all through the winter months.
”Maybe there might be another Cyrus Christie, there might be another McGoldrick out there,” he says, “and we can see if those players are capable of stepping into the big arena.”
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