herald

Wednesday 7 December 2016

just give the ball to main man wes

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MARTIN O'Neill likes to point out that he played in some pretty high-level international games in his day. He throws it out there as evidence of his ability to cope with a huge game like this make-or-break tie against Scotland.

There is, of course, a very big difference between pulling on boots and picking a team at the highest level.

The simple act of wearing a national shirt can, in itself, be as detailed a team talk as some players need and motivation enough to be able to cope with high-intensity occasions.

Sure, some freeze in those circumstances, but generally, speaking, if you're good enough to play a lot of times for your country, and as he did, lead Northern Ireland out as captain in a World Cup quarter-final, you have the mental capacity to deal with the pressure.

COMPLEX

But the complex task of knitting together a competitive unit from disparate clubs is another challenge entirely, and in that regard, it is hard to see how O'Neill's distinguished international career will be much of a help.

There is some responsibility on the shoulders of a national team captain but the man who must figure out how to win and takes the hit when things go wrong is the manager.

Nobody seems confident about this game. When someone suggested to O'Neill yesterday that the campaign had stalled after a promising start, he refused to accept the point.

"I wouldn't say stalled," he said and we cast about for a better word to describe the fact that Ireland have not looked comfortable in any game in this qualifying series to date and that includes Gibraltar.

Ireland were lucky to emerge from Georgia with a win, beaten off the park by Germany in all but the scoreline, had no complaints about Scotland's three points in Parkhead and struggled against Poland until desperation brought some freedom and a late goal.

O'Neill spoke about how some teams are now in a position to qualify if they win in this series and how time is marching on.

Ireland are in a polar opposite position. Lose this game and Everest will appear in headlines - with four games to go. The uncomfortable truth about the Martin O'Neill/Roy Keane combination is that two inspirational men have somehow been reduced by the job they are doing.

We have watched Scotland grow under Gordon Strachan to the point where it is not unreasonable to suggest that they are much further ahead in their development than O'Neill can claim for his group. They are very much a team and have a manager who seems much more at ease with the task of imprinting his vision on good footballers with limited contact.

Giovanni Trapattoni spent hour upon hour of his short spurts of what might loosely be called work beating his dull message into football minds he believed were not capable of hearing anything else, but the players understood what he wanted and that cannot be denied.

It was visible in everything they did on the pitch and if we are to look for a similar reflection of O'Neill in this version of Ireland, it is hard to discern.

If a team mirrors the manager, O'Neill is inconsistent, at times ill-disciplined, and other times wired up so tight that simple things become labyrinthine.

But we know from his CV that this is not an accurate picture of O'Neill the manager. His club teams were a balanced mix of high-tempo aggression and disciplined defending, and while he seems to have got one part of that right, Ireland cannot seem to start a game on the front foot.

O'Neill has talked a good deal about this during the week, and Keane too. Surely it must be obvious to both men that the one man who can give you forward momentum is Wes Hoolahan, quite simply because he knows no other way.

If O'Neill wants Ireland to attack Scotland from the first whistle, start Hoolahan and give him the ball.

Otherwise we will get a more committed version of the rearguard action we saw against England when Ireland spent a large proportion of the game defending, and as has been the case since O'Neill's first game, more than willing to lash the ball long.

Much has been made of the second half against Poland and James McCarthy's role in the revival which ultimately produced an equaliser.

HONEST

But let's be honest, were Ireland and McCarthy really that good? Was it not Hoolahan's move into a playmaking role and James McClean's ferocious will to change the game which made the difference as much as the Everton midfielder's undoubtedly classy contribution.

Uncertainty over Aiden McGeady this time and Robbie Keane's most unfortunate and sad bereavement mean that O'Neill has practical concerns before he hands out the team sheet tonight.

Even when he finally settles on his team, the sense that he will still beset by doubt is hard to shake.

Nobody doubts O'Neill's credentials as a manager but as Keane pointed out, it's all about the next match and a good CV will be chip paper if we wake up on Sunday morning without three points and the next match is an all but a dead fixture.

ireland v scotland, live rte 2/sky sports 1 (ko 5.0)

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