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Saturday 25 March 2017

O'Neill's men find rich vein of form and golden goals

(l-r) Shane Long faces a threat to nail down a place in the Southampton team following the signing of Manolo Gabbiadini
(l-r) Shane Long faces a threat to nail down a place in the Southampton team following the signing of Manolo Gabbiadini
The sight of Robbie Brady scoring against Chelsea last Sunday will please Ireland manager Martin O’Neill

Giddy days for goals and a great boost for Martin O'Neill. It's a long time since we've seen such a quantity of quality from Irish players.

O'Neill's phone call to Roy Keane on Sunday evening must have been as warm as the day was bitter.

Keane's face figured prominently in coverage of Burnley's doughty draw with the runaway Premier League leaders and didn't flinch when Robbie Brady's mathematically precise curve swung around the Chelsea wall and beat Thibaut Courtois

Turf Moor is open to the weather and no place for snowflakes unless they're falling from the sky. Keane's facial muscles were locked in a hypothermic clench.

Once Brady was subbed, he skipped down the steep steps of the main stand two at a time and into the warmth beneath.

What he saw through the stair-rod sleet and snow while his man was on the pitch was a nondescript enough performance from Brady, an opinion offered by the player himself.

But he was asked to play in a six-man defence and the blanket Sean Dyche threw over Chelsea didn't allow room for individuality.

The one real moment he had in the spotlight he grabbed and delivered a free-kick of great beauty.

What was just as impressive as his goal was his instinct towards honesty in his self-analysis. Like Seamus Coleman, Brady's personality is expanding and offering substance to go with his talent.

On Saturday, those with long memories might have caught an echo of days when the BBC teleprinter rolled across the page spelling out Irish names doing important things for their clubs. It hasn't happened very often since.

Aiden McGeady was first in with two ridiculous dribbles, shots and goals for Preston which must have made O'Neill purr.

He has invested a lot of time and trust in McGeady's ability to find a way out of the career cul de sac he has been in and rediscover the kind of form which produced a goal like the one which beat Georgia in Tbilisi during the dying moments of O'Neill's first competitive game as Ireland boss.

O'Neill often quotes that goal when he is asked about McGeady and in a way which makes it plain that he has never given up on his pace and twinkle toes.

Daryl Horgan's goal wasn't quite as spectacular as McGeady's but no less significant. Each step he takes is sure-footed and this latest along the road brought a roar of delight from Preston fans. It's good to be green at Deepdale.

While all that was going on Wes Hoolahan waved his wand and dinked a ball 40 yards to the back of the Nottingham Forest net. Breath-taking.

Gareth Bale's appearance in baggy training gear on a field in Madrid reminded us all of the task facing O'Neill and his players against Wales next month and Shane Long could have a big part to play in that.

He tagged one on the end of Southmapton's big win at Sunderland and with four goals in his last seven games, including an important one against Liverpool in the League Cup semi-final second-leg, his season is firing into life.

His problem is Manolo Gabbiadini who scored in his last three games for Juventus in Serie A and three in his first two following his move to the Saints in the January window.

And he faces competition with Ireland too. Daryl Murphy is doing well at Newcastle and remains a credible option for O'Neill.

The one player bucking the trend is James McClean who has lost momentum.

Improving West Brom have a big squad now and he hasn't had a league start since October.

McClean is a man who has to play and the more he plays the better he gets. He can't do that if he's sitting on the bench.

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