Given that Gibraltar have shipped 34 goals in six games and can’t even claim proper home advantage in these European Championship qualifiers, it’s fair to say that, balmy weather conditions apart, Ireland won’t exactly be walking into a footballing hothouse in the Estadio Algarve on Friday night.
More likely, it will be a kind of sleepy, vaguely surreal setting as competitive internationals go but, while acknowledging that this is hardly a normal away game, Roy Keane insists that Ireland will not be lulled into a false sense of security against the group whipping boys.
“I think it can happen,” he concedes, “but we have a lot of experience in the group, a lot of experience, the Robbie Keanes, the Shay Givens, the John O’Sheas, these boys. You said a half empty stadium but whether you’re playing in front of 80,000 or 90,000 or one man and his dog, you have to do things properly and, whatever the atmosphere may be, you have to be professional, do a good job and make it an atmosphere.
“I’m sure there will be Irish supporters over there and you have to try to make a decent tempo to the game with a few tackles, chances and, please God, goals.”
It’s crucial, the assistant manager insists, that nobody take Gibraltar for granted.
“When I look back on my career, I’ve tried to treat every team the same — with respect,” says Keane. “There is a lot of experience in our dressing room and an experienced manager and the one thing we won’t do is take our eye off the ball in terms of training and think we can just turn up and win a game of football. It doesn’t pan out that way. We’ve seen clips of Gibraltar and, particularly when they’re at home, they can cause problems as they have a bit of pace and honesty in their team.
“When they do go on the counter-attack, they go with numbers and pace and energy. They have had their moments where they have given bad goals away but whatever you say about the players they do have a go and try and score. It’s not as if they sit in and think ‘well, maybe’. If they get an opportunity they get forward with pace and numbers. They look like a real honest team.
“Different games can provide different challenges. Obviously the problem we’ll have in the next few days is people asking ‘how many goals can you score’, blah blah blah. First and foremost we have to turn up, do a proper job, be professional and try to win the game of football and take it from there.”
Keane says he doesn’t agree with those who argue that true minnows like international neophytes Gibraltar ought be weeded out in pre-qualifying for the European Championships.
“Anytime we’ve watched them the last few days and we’ve looked at clips, they have improved, definitely,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to have some harsh lessons in football. So I wouldn’t be one for saying these teams don’t deserve to be in a group with ourselves and Germany and Poland. You could say that about ourselves — give us a couple of easier groups. We’ve found it hard to win international matches. I’m not one for saying they shouldn’t be allowed in.”
On one of the Ireland squad’s own international newcomers, Keane says he has been impressed by Bournemouth’s Eunan O’Kane.
“I like him,” he says. “We’ve seen him a number of times playing for his club and he’s progressed really well. I think some lads might find international level — particularly if you’re playing the Premier League or obviously the Championship — slightly easier because other teams do let you have the ball. And if you can control it and deal with it — which you hope most professional footballers can but believe me a lot of them can’t — you’ve got a chance. If he’s playing regularly at club level — and they play really good football, Bournemouth, excellent to watch — and, from what we’ve seen here over the last couple of days, first impressions are he’s got a chance.”
Addressing Darron Gibson’s woes, Keane observed: “Gibbo in the last two or three years just hasn’t played enough football and sometimes that can play on your mind. He’s still quite young but he needs to play regularly, whatever about off the field stuff.
“But, y’know, you’ve got to do something about it. Gibbo’s got to do something. Get in that team or go out on loan and get some game-time. I know he’s injured at the minute but go out and start showing people what you’re capable of. Because obviously I remember Gibbo when he was at United and they always said that he’s got a chance. But we’ve seen before talented players fall by the wayside and hopefully that won’t be the case with Gibbo. He’s at a good club.”
There was good news on the injury front for Ireland with James McCarthy coming through a full training session following a scan on his knee — Keane wryly observed that he’s disappointed if midfielders don’t pick up knocks — and only Paul McShane missing out yesterday with hip and back stiffness which the management fully expect will clear up over the next day or two.
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