What’s cool for Cats is what finally put fire in Irish bellies on Monday night, according to Martin O’Neill.
As determined and urgent in the second-half against Georgia as they had been lethargic and nervy in the first, Ireland finally got what they deserved for a much improved performance when Jon Walters profited from a dazzling intervention by Jeff Hendrick to claim the game’s only goal and, with it, a four-point lead over Scotland in the battle for a European Championship play-off place.
Asked to pinpoint what precisely had triggered the change in Irish fortunes at half-time, O’Neill — who had attended the All-Ireland hurling final with Roy Keane the previous day — offered an unexpected response.
“I heard a fantastic manager — Mr Cody from Kilkenny — say ‘sometimes people step up to the plate when you really want them’,” he said.
Pressed as to whether he had demanded the same of his players or even quoted the Kilkenny manager in the half-time dressing room at the Aviva, O’Neill suddenly grew coy.
“I’m happy to quote Mr Cody and leave it at that,” he said.
He did, however, give great credit to Ireland’s match-winner on the night, not just for his goal, but for a vital contribution in helping to lift the side with his all-round performance.
“I think Jon Walters was the catalyst for a lot of it.” O’Neill said. “What Jon does when he’s playing on the right-hand side, as he does for his club and often for us, and up front, is he tends to get hold of the ball, which is very, very important. Because I know from the old managers before that a lot of play can start from up top by a top-quality centre-forward getting hold of it, and Jon does that. And then he’s not frightened to go into the box.
“He’s shown a lot of courage and he’s been great for us, really great. His confidence is up. Of course he gets encouragement from us all but he earns that encouragement.”
O’Neill has himself been given the credit for changing things at the break, replacing Robbie Keane with Shane Long and, according to Jeff Hendrick, impressing on the team the urgency of the need to get into the faces of the Georgian players. Mind, he could hardly have said otherwise after seeing with the damning evidence of Ireland’s lacklustre first-half performance.
“We were coming in with good confidence before we got onto the field of play but sometimes that can evaporate quite quickly and we just didn’t seem to have energy,” O’Neill observed.
“Georgia started to come into the game and we allowed them a little bit of space to play, and they had their confidence buoyed by beating Scotland and came here with nothing to lose. It’s a game I’ve seen all so often and it was hard work for us, it really was. As a consequence we didn’t create very much in the first-half at all — Seamus (Coleman) had the shot which the goalkeeper parried for the corner. Not very much.
“You think you have 90 minutes to win the game and it takes time to get going and then the opposition starts playing it nicely themselves. I’ve seen it so often, but at least we quelled that and, in the second-half, we came out, started immediately, put them under pressure and kept them under pressure. The crowd got behind us, which obviously helps, and although we weren’t magnificent, I thought we were wearing them down and the goal would come at some stage. And on the second- half performance we definitely deserved it.”
Various permutations are still at play in Group D but, for Ireland to secure third place, the two most straightforward ways are by beating either Germany or Poland or — rather more plausibly, you’d have to think — hoping Scotland lose to the Poles which would render redundant the former’s three-point banker against Gibraltar — in which case the Irish wouldn’t even need a point from their remaining two games and would progress to the play-offs without, bizarrely, having managed a single victory against any of their three main rivals in the group.
Of course, at no stage has Martin O’Neill given up on the still extant possibility Ireland could grab one of the two automatic qualifying places but, with two of the group’s toughest assignments still to come, it sounds now like he’s definitely leaning towards the more realistic prospect of aiming for a place in the play-offs.
“If they offered me now something that is there and you’re boiling it down to two games, home and away, particularly the games we have, I think you would nearly have to take that,” he said.
“If we go and play strongly, which we’ll have to do for 90 minutes against Germany, then who knows? But, if we had a complete half the way we did in the firs thalf on Monday, then we might be in a bit of trouble. I’m relishing the game, that’s the first thing, I think the players are too.”
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