PRESS conferences are sometimes notable for what isn’t said rather than what is. That rule was tweaked ever so slightly in Malahide last night where it wasn’t about who turned up as much as who didn’t.
Four players were wheeled out for media duties ahead of next Saturday’s World Cup qualifier in Nicosia and it escaped no-one’s attention that none were involved on the side’s last, ill-fated trip to Cyprus in 2006.
In actual fact, less than half of the 14 players who featured in that 5-2 embarrassment are involved with the squad this week and, so far, it would seem that none of them has mentioned the war.
Stephen Hunt was one of the quartet of talking heads to divulge a few thoughts about the week to come yesterday and he has yet to get a sense that any of the ‘survivors’ are chomping at the bit for revenge.
“I’m not sure, to be honest. You will have to ask those boys that. I’ll get more of a sense off them closer to the game. Maybe one or two players might say something. ‘Listen, we owe these guys one’ or ‘this is a time to win the game’.
“But today was more like a warm-down, meeting with the boys and having a bit of banter. Come closer to Saturday, I am sure there will be stuff like that said around the changing room, for sure.”
Hunt was ‘lucky’ – and the term is used tentatively – in that his international debut didn’t come for another four months towards the end of the equally traumatic tie against San Marino at the Serravelle Stadium.
Much has changed about Ireland since then, not least their form on the road which has far outstripped anything they have managed at Croke Park in this particular qualifying campaign.
Four draws away from home have set Ireland up nicely with just three games to go in Group Eight but Hunt can’t quite put his finger on why there has been such a discrepancy between performances, if not results, on home turf.
“It’s difficult to say. I don’t know. Maybe teams go more defensive when they come to Croke Park and they see the size of the stadium, maybe the respect for the players (increases) when they come to our place.
“It’s up to us to perform and, come the Italy and Montenegro games, you might see a different Ireland because we might have to go for it gung ho to get the points to finish top of the group.”
Hunt’s performances have mirrored those of the team. His best displays have come many a mile from Dublin but he stomps quickly on any assertion that he is far more suited to a starting role on foreign assignments.
That much is understandable. No player likes to be tagged with a moniker – supersub being another – that would seem to curtail the amount of time he would spend on the pitch.
And yet the fact remains that, for all the improvements Aiden McGeady has shown defensively in recent times with Ireland, Hunt’s game does seem more suited to an occasion like Saturday’s.
Both players have started their domestic seasons in encouraging form but Damian Duff is unlikely to be overlooked as a starter, certainly not since his return to the Premier League with Fulham.
“There are other players as well,” said Hunt. “There is Liam Lawrence who is playing regularly in the Premiership. There is Andy Keogh who can play there and who played there in Italy so there is plenty of competition.
“There is competition for places all over the place. Who is going to play centre midfield? No-one knows. Who is going to play left-back, right-back? It is difficult to know. Whoever the manager goes with, the most important thing is that the team is together and you back your team-mates if they play in front of you. You say ‘all the best, do well and hopefully we can get to a World Cup together’. That’s the most important thing.”
Italy will be facing Georgia in Tbilisi while Giovanni Trapattoni’s men are in the Mediterranean and the world champions play host to Bulgaria next Wednesday.
The hope is that the group favourites will drop points at some point in the space of those five days. If that happens, and Ireland win, then the game against Italy at Croke Park in October would almost be a winner-takes-all.
“We are obviously going to be hoping for that,” said the Hull City midfielder. “Italy are the world champions and they always just seem to do enough to qualify so we have to put as much pressure on them as we can.
“Hopefully we can get the three points on Saturday and take them to our place and beat them, although I don’t expect them to drop points, to be honest with you.”
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