There was a touch of ‘out with old Robbie, in the new’ at the Aviva Stadium on Wednesday, as the veteran Keane signed off with a trademark flourish and then, with his own exquisite free kick, rising star Brady signed in on the night with an equally characteristic strike.
Robbie Brady was widely acclaimed as one of the stand-out success stories of the summer, a view shared by Martin O’Neill who admits he’s baffled that the transfer window came and went without the Dubliner emulating his Irish colleague Jeff Hendrick by moving to a top-flight club in England.
“I have been championing his cause now for the last couple of years, I think he’s been terrific,” says the Ireland manager, “and I am surprised, I must admit, that he is not playing in the Premier League. Particularly on the strength of what he did in the Euros. I think Jeff Hendrick was transferred on what he’s done at the Euros, not really what he’s done for Derby in the last year.”
While Brady’s place in the Irish set-up is now secure, precisely how best the Norwich man is deployed on the pitch remains a matter for debate.
“I feel there are two positions he can play equally well,” is O’Neill’s view. “I feel he can see a lot of the game coming from a left-back position and that’s fine and I wouldn’t have a problem playing him there, which he has done. Or we can move him into the middle of the field and have Stephen Ward at left-back who has always done well for me and I’m sure for previous managers. If we play three in the middle and Robbie is on the left side of that, he can get forward and do things with it. So I wouldn’t have a problem playing Robbie in any of those two positions.
“He’s adaptable. Getting back to what Ian Bowyer used to say to me way back at Nottingham Forest, when everybody said he could play a number of positions, (he said) ‘yes, but when everyone is fit I’m sub!’ Well, Robbie won’t be sub when everyone is fit. He’s not a utility player to me.”
Asked if he feels Ireland are in better shape ahead of the upcoming World Cup campaign than when they were embarking on the Euros journey this time two years ago, he replied: “We should be. I’m not talking about physically but mentally we should be, with some of the games we’ve gone through.
During that campaign we have taken four points off Germany, the world champions. We’ve had to fight against Bosnia to get through. We had some big, big matches and over the 12 games we came through that.”
He also feels that the residual confidence built up through the qualifying campaign stood to his players in moments of adversity in France.
“I think the players went into the Italy game, on the back of having been beaten by Belgium, but still feeling, ‘hang on a minute, it’s not that long ago that we beat Germany and came through against Bosnia’.
We had to battle the whole way through but we did fine out there and if we had a couple of more days I honestly feel we could have beaten France. But that is gone now, that is tournament football where things like that can happen. We’re now back into qualification mode and getting your head around that.”
And, he stresses again, that he believes the challenge posed by the upcoming World Cup campaign — in which only one team automatically qualifies from their group — will be significantly different to that which Ireland faced on the road to Euro 2016.
“What I think about this group is that teams will take points off each other whereas, with Germany, you always felt they would top the group and you would be fighting for second or third. This group will be won by the team with the least number of points (of all the qualifiers). Moldova will take points off teams too.
“From that viewpoint, you would hopefully get some points on the board early on to give yourself a chance. We have got a wee bit more experience around us, and some of the players have a bit more confidence about their game now, so that should help.
“But sometimes, confidence is temporary. It can erode very quickly.”
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