John Giles: Wes Hoolahan is the spark that we need in midfield
Ireland need discipline and creativity to beat Scotland in a must-win game
This is the time for leadership and good management. Anything less than a win against Scotland will place Ireland in a very difficult position and it is in these circumstances that the best managers do their best work.
I want to be as positive as I can for this game. There’s is a great deal riding on it and nobody wants to sit on the outside looking in next year when the finals get under way.
Sure, Ireland were drawn in a tough group, but qualification is easier and nobody could argue with that.
In any qualification series, there are pivotal fixtures and they ebb and flow over the course of the series. What might not have looked a vital game when the draw was made can be given extra significance by circumstances.
Scotland were always going to be a main rival for one of the spots available so Martin O’Neill should not be surprised that we have reached this point and a win is crucial.
It is not comfortable to contemplate the thought that by Sunday, Ireland’s race could be all but run and still four fixtures left to complete, and I’m sure O’Neill did not envisage that position when he started out.
To win the game, O’Neill spoke about loosening the shackles on his players and explained that he wanted them to play without tension.
He must be the one who sets the tone for that. The manager brings confidence and certainty to players, and while he can do very little when the whistle blows and they take over, he can play a huge part in bringing them to the starting gun believing they can win.
Obviously, the most important part of the process is the team he selects and who he trusts to go out and deliver on the plan he has made for the game.
With that in mind, I want to see Wes Hoolahan in the team. No other player in the Ireland set-up does what he does.
I believe James McCarthy could do it. I believe he has the ability and the skills to do it, but he never actually delivers.
I know O’Neill said that McCarthy was a vastly improved player in the second-half against Poland and while I agree with that, I still think his performance level falls short of what it could and by now, should be.
How often do you see McCarthy point to another part of the pitch when Ireland are in possession? How often does he pass sideways or backwards? Far too often.
He should be the one putting himself in a position where team-mates look for him and want to give him the ball. Whenever someone in possession looks up, McCarthy should the first person he sees.
Roberto Martinez has been saying for a long time that McCarthy is slowly growing into his potential, but this lad is now at the point where we should be talking about substance rather than hope.
I don’t want to be too hard on him because I’m sure he has all he needs to be the player we want him to be, but I’m not convinced that he will ever be that good.
Which brings me back to Hoolahan. In the absence of anything but solid, holding midfield play from McCarthy, Ireland need a spark, and for me the only man who can supply it is Hoolahan.
When I look for McCarthy to put himself in a part the pitch where he will get the ball, I want him to take responsibility for the game and his team. I want him to run the show.
Hoolahan does this instinctively because he always wants the ball and he always tries to do something positive with it when he has it.
I read Ronnie Whelan’s assessment earlier this week and while I understand what he means when he says that this is a game for strong men, I don’t agree with him when he suggests that Hoolahan cannot fit into the plan.
If anything, the physical stuff came from Ireland in Parkhead back in November and when the pressure was at its height, discipline fell apart.
Scotland have improved dramatically under Gordon Strachan and if any football is played in what is sure to be a typical derby match, I think it will come from men in blue unless O’Neill trusts Hoolahan.
It was a worry to me to see ill-discipline in the Ireland team in the first game. The team reflects the manager and you would have thought that men like O’Neill and Roy Keane would be on top of that.
It will be absolutely vital that every player keeps his head against Scotland. You can talk all you like about freeing players from shackles but they need to behave when you do it.
I’m not confident about this game and my heart wants the three points as badly as anyone, but my head tells me that it will be a draw, perhaps 1-1.