herald

Thursday 19 October 2017

O'Neill worries too much

Republic of Ireland's players, from left, Brian Lenihan, Robbie Brady
Republic of Ireland's players, from left, Brian Lenihan, Robbie Brady

AND so, the small matter of a football match. Gibraltar, lowest ranked team in Europe, maybe the world and just before Ireland meet the best on the planet. It's been that sort of extreme week.

As we have come to expect, O'Neill retreated into his pre-match shell yesterday and the bubble he builds for himself requires him to look tired, preoccupied and mildly tetchy.

But for a while longer at least, O'Neill will be able to luxuriate in the knowledge that he has a 100% management record at competitive international level.

O'Neill urged caution at every step this week. His message, often lost in the middle of the hubbub created by Roy Keane's book launch, has been relentlessly guarded about Gibraltar.

But really. Is it necessary to be so cautious that the image projected of Gibraltar gives them vastly more credit than they deserve or even want at this point in their development?

They are a part-time team with part-time players that train part-time. It is nothing like the comparison O'Neill made yesterday between Nottingham Forest, then European Champions and York City in an FA Cup tie on a cabbage patch pitch in deepest winter back in the mists of time.

York City were founded in 1922 and they got to an FA Cup semi-final in 1955. They beat Alex Ferguson's 1995/96 double winning team 3-0 at Old Trafford in the League Cup. In short, they have a tradition, even a giant-killing tradition.

This is not even like that weird day when we sat in the lee of the Alps and watched some of the best players ever to play for Ireland break in waves against Liechtenstein's impenetrable goal line or the night Stephen Ireland saved everyone's blushes up a hill in San Marino.

This is more like sending Ireland's team bus out to a good LSL clubs ground for a game and they might be challenged more by that than they should be by Gibraltar.

That's the reality of this game, no matter how much O'Neill wants to dress it up as some difficult chore which must be done properly before we move on. He's right. It is a chore which must be done but why not be a bit more positive about it?

Gibraltar gave Poland the run around in their first competitive match ever for 20 minutes and ran out of legs in the second-half.

They shipped a bundle of goals because of that and there is absolutely no reason why the same should not happen at the Aviva this evening.

The real concern is Tuesday and the fact that likely as not, Ireland will take on Germany without James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman, the team's two best players.

There has been little or no talk about the Everton duo since O'Neill confirmed that Everton had withdrawn both men but in the undergrowth there are contrasting rumours which suggest that one or both men could yet make an appearance.

A few days back, it seemed as if McCarthy was the likely prodigal but sources suggest now that Coleman has made good progress this week and could yet be sprung by O'Neill for Gelsenkirchen.

We can but wait and hope. The dilemma over how to arrange his defence is causing O'Neill major problems and Marc Wilson is now the popular favourite to take up a place at right-full against Gibraltar and Germany if the speculation about Coleman turns to dust.

Presumably, if O'Neill plans to do something unusual like shoehorning David Meyler in at right-full to try to preserve the stability of a defence already less than watertight, he will give it a trial run against Gibraltar.

Although he insists that the Gibraltar game stands alone, it was always going to an opportunity to do something different. Unless there is an absolute disaster, he should normally expect some latitude to try an experiment or promote a young player in a game like this.

But his problem is fundamental.He has no full-backs and he must find an effective way to reshuffle his cards against Gibraltar which might help inform his choices for the more challenging task in Germany.

Richard Keogh is a non-starter for this one and O'Neill doesn't believe he will be right for Germany either, which reduces further his pool of defenders.

His difficulties only begin at the back. In midfield, he has two potential starters, Jeff Hendrick and Darron Gibson, with too few competitive match minutes in their legs and his best player is not available.

So, to be fair, all of that gives him some reason to be low key in his approach to Gibraltar and while it is always good to hear the international manager sing a positive song, O'Neill is a worrier by nature and won't change his spots.

After all, it's Germany next. It would be more than a bit foolish to patronise European football's ultimate minnow when the roles will be exactly reversed from the moment O'Neill lands in Düsseldorf on Monday.

O'Neill has been dealt a poor hand for this set of fixtures and in a wider sense, he is perhaps the first Ireland manager unable to put his hand on at least one top quality full-back for each side of the pitch. They used to grow on trees.

It won't matter against Gibraltar but it will on Tuesday. Quite a lot. He will do well if he can look back in a week's time with a memory of Jogi Loew's Germans which isn't too raw.

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