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Saturday 10 December 2016

O'Neill's results speak volumes for him

Wonderful win in Vienna sets up Ireland for serious attack on top spot in Group D

Martin O'Neill celebrates with James McClean Picture: Sportsfile
Martin O'Neill celebrates with James McClean Picture: Sportsfile

Jack Charlton qualified for three tournament finals, raised Ireland to sixth in the world and despite all of that, you can still hear the debate about whether he was good or bad for Irish football.

On one side is the idea that our tradition should allow for better performances and a way of playing that's easier on the eye.

On the other is the pragmatic view. Results gets Ireland to tournament finals and who cares how we get them.

I'm somewhere in between.

Imagine for a moment, while you sit back in the nice glow of success and enjoy something so rare, a win against a higher ranked team and away from home, if O'Neill's Ireland had just a bit more guile, just a bit more confidence on the ball.

Imagine what might happen then? Imagine if they played like they did in the second-half all the time?

But it could well be that Martin O'Neill's legacy will be exactly the same as Jack's and when his stint as Ireland boss ends, we will be having the same argument.

Results

The fact is that he gets results. He got them the last campaign when we all had doubts and performances were poor and we've had more of the same in the first four games of this series.

He's been lucky too and when it looked like all was lost on the road to France, Georgia beat Scotland.

Even better on Saturday night, Serbia grabbed a late-equaliser against Wales in Cardiff although while one part of me wants to stick to the book and say that all draws between group rivals are good, I fancy that a defeat for Serbia might have been in Ireland's best interests overall.

They are the pick of the group as far as I am concerned but they are temperamentally fragile. If they had lost in Cardiff, it might have been a big, big blow to their growing confidence.

For the moment though, O'Neill need not concern himself with Serbia. A showdown may yet come with them late next year but O'Neill can take a moment to relax and enjoy the sight of Ireland on ten points at the top of the table.

He's taken four points away from home from Serbia and Austria, two massive results and won six more against smaller nations. Hard to see how he could have done any better.

But here's the point. Ireland cannot afford even a second of satisfaction before the job is done.

We've been here before. Brian Kerr's Ireland won a fantastic position in 2004 when they drew with Switzerland, France and Israel in the first three months of qualification and were set fair to take full advantage with home games against the same teams at Lansdowne Road in 2005.

History tells us that the old stadium was a graveyard for our hopes of making it to the World Cup finals in Germany.

O'Neill's team is built on hard graft and great heart, not on Hoolahan's marvellous left foot and the margins between a result like this one and something altogether less wholesome are tiny.

I sat down to watch Ireland play Austria fully expecting a home win. As far as I was concerned, this was the type of opposition with enough talent to make our brand of battling and scrapping redundant.

I was totally wrong.

Austria were disappointing and after a very ropey first 45 minutes, it was Ireland who took control of the game and in the end, won pretty comfortably.

A 1-0 scoreline is never really comfortable but there was no sense of panic after James McClean got on the end of a rare flowing counter-attack from Ireland and scored that crucial goal, no sense that if Austria were able to get one back, they might overrun us.

And all of this after O'Neill was forced to pick a team he might not have selected if he had everyone available.

David Meyler, in particular, was behind two or three for a place in midfield and only for Glenn Whelan's injury, he wouldn't have made it onto the pitch at all.

Meyler's arrival into the game changed everything. He brought a physical threat, literally, to Ireland's game and frightened the life out of Austria.

Take it from me, there is nothing better than when one of your lads is putting himself about like that and making inroads.

I played beside Steve McMahon and Grame Souness, richly talented footballers, but when they were about their work in midfield, the opposition measured their impact in bruises.

I recognised instantly what was driving Meyler. I reckon he has been nursing a quiet but intense feeling of hurt that he hasn't been more involved and to me, this was the performance of a man out to prove to everyone that he should not have been so overlooked.

Rattled

Suddenly David Alaba and Julian Baumgartlinger were rattled, taking an extra touch, aware that a flying boot or elbow was likely to arrive at any moment and in creating that environment, Meyler opened the game up for Wes Hoolahan and Harry Arter to come more and more into the game.

There is a big lesson in this. Sure, Meyler walked a tightrope a couple of times with the referee but he got away with it and helped change the game.

Perhaps we need a bit more of that.

Perhaps Hoolahan needs an enforcer beside him to get the best out of him because for the first 45 minutes, he gave a perfect demonstration of why O'Neill is wary of picking him for away games like this.

He was double-marked every time he got the ball, was hustled off it too easily, passed poorly and couldn't get to the pace of the game.

Given some room and with Meyler and Arter running interference for him, Hoolahan found the pass of the night and set-up McClean.

As a result, we can now look forward to next March with a high level of anticipation for the Aviva collision with Wales.

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