Standing before us inside the warmth of the groundsman’s hut in Gannon Park, woolly hat still on his head as a protective against the raw east wind which swept across the training ground yesterday, John O’Shea personified the Irish old guard in a period of transition.
In his area of the pitch, the stats say it all, the Waterford man’s 86th cap in Stockholm easily eclipsing the rest of the back five’s combined total of a mere 24, comprising David Forde (six), Seamus Coleman (nine), Ciarán Clark (five) and Marc Wilson (four). And as you’d expect from a comparative greybeard, O’Shea wasn’t getting carried away by the upturn in Ireland’s fortunes as a result of Friday’s scoreless draw in Sweden.
“Generally positive but also cautious because we know there’s a big job to be done yet,” was how he summed up the mood in the camp, agreeing it would require a maximum return of three points from the game against Austria tomorrow night if Ireland are to make the most of that well-earned point in Stockholm.
“Exactly, yeah. But, listen, Austria will be thinking they’re kind of the forgotten team behind Ireland and Sweden for the second place but they’re a very good outfit with experienced players and some good young lads as well. We’ll be going through the video so we’ll have our homework done and, fingers crossed, we can get about Austria like we did Sweden in terms of the pressing game and the shutting down. The team was very good as a cohesive unit the other night and we need to take that forward into Tuesday.”
Signs are that Clark will retain his place ahead of Sean St Ledger, confirmation of Giovanni Trapattoni’s growing faith in O’Shea’s partnership with the Aston Villa man.
“Clarky’s going to go from strength to strength because I know the type of character he is,” said O’Shea. “He’s been learning from Richie [Dunne] as well at club level. Is he a talker on the pitch? He’s getting there, but that’s what all the lads have to improve on, the communication factor especially if we’re going to be going with the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, you really have to be shuttling across and getting lads covering in and different things, so the communication factor is going to grow game by game.”
Asked to account for the refreshing sight of two Irish full-backs, Coleman and Wilson, repeatedly getting forward in Stockholm, O’Shea said: “It’s just the manager picking them and knowing what their strengths are and also having the balance of Paul Green and James [McCarthy] to cut across — Greeny in particular was given the role of, not filling in at full-back, but just guiding across to the left and right and he did it very well. Thankfully, they didn’t have a lot of counter-attacks because we were able to snuff them out quite early. So the tactics worked quite well.”
Same again in the Aviva then? “It’s hard to say. It will be interesting to see the Austrians’ approach — will they sit back or have a go at us? I think that will dictate but we just have to worry about ourselves initially, hopefully get the crowd going.
“If we are focused and concentrated like we were the other night we should be okay. But we will have to be a bit more clinical. Our final pass the other night [let us down]. We got ourselves into a couple of great positions but, whether it was a pass over-hit or a player not picked out, that’s something we will have to do better in this game to get the goals.”
Encouragingly, O’Shea’s Sunderland team-mate James McClean had easily his best outing for either club or country in some time.
“That’s the case of a youngster coming into the top flight,” the veteran observed. “You will have those peaks and troughs so hopefully he will have another peak against Austria. James enjoyed it in Stockholm and, with the first chance he got, he went straight at the full-back. It was what we wanted to see and what he was told to do, getting back to flying at players. He’s very difficult to deal with and if he can do that against Austria he’ll be a big threat.”
And what of all the outside pressures — the lingering post-Euros gloom, the ongoing speculation about Trapattoni’s position? Does any of it really impinge on the camp? “No, not at all and I think you can see from the performance the other night that those are natural things that happen in football in this present day — the speculation, the rumours and, what do I say, a lot of the bull — that is part and parcel of what goes on.
“You have got to big and bold enough to just get on with it. The manager showed the other night that he made the changes when he had to in the belief of getting the right result. And although it did not work out in a win, it did work out with a very favourable result — as long as we get the win against Austria.”
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