O’Neill: Real work starts here

The old town looks the same as I step down from the train…

Well, not exactly. All around our lodgings in Poznan, hard by the railway station, there’s major reconstruction afoot — roads torn up, underpasses blocked off, detours everywhere — turning the once familiar into a bit of a puzzle.

You could say the same about the Irish football team — and not just because you’re a journalist in search of an intro.

The analogy actually does have merit, for what is the nascent Martin O’Neill era except a work in progress, the tentative sketching of blueprints and laying of foundations for something which will only take proper shape come next autumn?

All in all, it’s quite a contrast from the last time we were here, when Giovanni Trapattoni finished as he’d begun, with an unchanged selection which was unable to change even the mood music of Ireland’s dismal Euro 2012.

The murder on the Gdansk floor wasn’t the low point — there was never going to be any shame in losing heavily to Spain. The worst of it was that Ireland’s Euros dream was over almost before it had begun, with that deflating 3-1 loss to Croatia at tonight’s venue. By the time we all returned to the city for the farewell game against Italy, there was only wounded pride to play for and yet, despite a reasonably spirited performance, the only change ultimately effected was to Ireland’s goals against column.

O’Neill and his new-look side, on the other hand, bounce into Poland with an unblemished record of one game, one win, three goals scored and none conceded. Lovely.

But that, of course, is in part the healthy dividend of his inaugural outing as manager coming at home against lowly opposition who, on the night, failed to even make a fist of damage limitation.

True, it was still uplifting to see Ireland make the most of their clear superiority to Latvia but this evening, at the Municipal Stadium, they are anticipating a very different challenge from a Poland side who will be expected to take the game to the visitors from the off.

And the stakes are that bit higher for the hosts because, having lost his first game as Poland’s new coach 2-0 to Slovakia last week, Adam Nawalka already knows what it’s like to have a performance greeted by jeers and whistles.

Yesterday, he spoke about working on his players’ mentality with a view to “getting rid of bad memories” in Poznan tonight, the kind of line which you might have expected to hear from the opposition camp.

For all that he described aspects of the game in Wroclaw against the Slovaks as “pretty disastrous”, Nawalka then went on to express brimming confidence that his team would regroup to deliver victory tonight, even if that optimism appears not to be shared by the locals who are hardly queuing around the block to buy tickets.

(And, needless to say, where on their last visit to Poznan the Green Army numbered in excess of 20,000, Irish support in the stadium tonight will do well to scrape past the 200 mark).

Even so, O’Neill should learn a good deal more about the scale of the challenge ahead from this evening’s encounter than he did from Friday’s comparative stroll in the park at the Aviva.

Tougher tests, he acknowledged yesterday, are always more instructive than those which don’t pull you out of your comfort zone.

“Yeah, I think that you could apply that to football in general, I totally agree with you,” he said.

“This will be a big test for us. Poland will have the ball — they went to Wembley a couple of weeks ago and had loads of possession of the ball away from home — so you can imagine here at home what they will do. They will be disappointed and probably spurred by losing the other evening as well. And naturally we’ll make a few changes in the team. That might — and, no excuses early on here, it’s nothing to do with that — but that might disrupt our rhythm a little bit. But I have to find out what players are capable of doing and that’s why some changes might be made.”

As usual, O’Neill wasn’t giving anything away about his team or his tactics but he did hint that the defence will definitely see some alteration — and all in the name of research and development.

“Genuinely there’s loads of things to work on,” he said. “Robbie [Keane] and I would totally agree on this. We have things to do. We won a game on Friday night. I thought we played very well, the first goal was very important and he got it, and it settled us down a little bit. But, no, we’ve loads of things to work on and I think tonight will show that.”

And on a totally different subject — and one he would clearly be happier not having to address — O’Neill gave his reaction to James McClean’s Twitter attack on the Belfast Telegraph over the weekend.

“I wasn’t overly pleased,” he said. “James seems to enjoy the Twittering and his performance [last Friday] merited one or two tweets from other people saying how well he had done, rather than James getting embroiled again. I don’t want to be a guru over this social media and players. I think there just has to be a bit of responsibility.”

O’Neill confirmed he has spoken to McClean but also made clear the issue won’t impact on his chances of being picked.

“I have reminded James,” he said. “But remember, it’s a fairly lengthy time since I last mentioned it to him [at Sunderland]. There has been a lot of tweeting gone under the bridge since then. But if I am going to leave players out because they have tweeted, then I am going to be in serious trouble down the line. If James doesn’t start against Poland, it won’t be anything to do with tweeting.”


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