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Wednesday 23 August 2017

Paul Hyland: Does O'Neill know what he is doing?

Question marks remain after battling draw with Poland

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill

ALMOST every casual conversation about Martin O'Neill before during and after Poland's point gathering visit to the Aviva, ended with one searing question. Does he actually know what he's doing?

It's one of the worst accusations that can be levelled at a football manager and given O'Neill's CV, it is more than surprising that the question has to be asked at all.

But it is hardly a great reflection of his time as Republic of Ireland manager that many people are still confused by his team and confused by the man himself.

Nobody was confused about Ireland from about the 60th minute against Poland through to the final whistle.

Wes Hoolahan slipped into his best position in the middle of the field and called the shots; James McClean came rampaging into the game like a man on a mission and Shane Long came off the bench to score a goal which kept O'Neill alive.

Had he not scored, we would be talking about O'Neill as an international management casualty and likely as not, would have waved goodbye to him at some point during the summer.

The problem is O'Neill's indecision. He is a living, breathing comma who seems to tie himself up in knots on the way to making a choice.

few hours

Shay Given only had a few hours to get his head around the fact that he would once again pull on an Ireland shirt for a big competitive home international and since he found out so late, one can only imagine how David Forde felt when he found out that he would not play against Poland.

It emerged on Sunday that O'Neill waited until he was in the tunnel at Parkhead back in November before telling his captain Robbie Keane that he was not going to start the game.

If you're being kind, you could point to this as example of ruthless efficiency on O'Neill's part. If you were being honest, the reality is something else entirely.

It is a fair bet that O'Neill didn't know Keane would sit on the bench until the very last moment. Certainly, on the evidence of the 14 games he has been the Ireland manager, dithering is hard-wired.

O'Neill made seven changes from the team that played Scotland. When Ireland took on Georgia in the group opener, just two men, Stephen Quinn and Stephen Ward, were retained from the starting-line up in the previous match against Oman.

Against Poland, O'Neill chose Jon Walters on the right wing and Wes Hoolahan on the left. Instead of playing both where they could do the most damage, he constructed a shape which the players clearly did not understand.

Uncertainty, confusion and the sense that there is something missing from this version of Ireland has been part of the narrative so far and it perhaps it is worth looking into O'Neill's past for some context.

The one missing link for O'Neill between now and his time at every club but Aston Villa was the shadow who helped him along the way - John Robertson.

The claim has always been made that O'Neill's success was somehow tied up with Robertson's value as a No 2 and in the case of Sunderland, this was used to explain why he didn't succeed there.

Only O'Neill, Robertson and the players who worked with them will know how big a part the assistant manager played but circumstantially, it looks like he was very important indeed.

Maybe Robertson supplied some of the certainty O'Neill lacks. Perhaps he had an eye for a player which his boss couldn't match. Who knows?

What we do know is that O'Neill cannot settle on a team in his mind and when it comes to key decisions, he often gets them wrong.

Wes Hoolahan is Ireland's best player by some distance but O'Neill has pigeon-holed him as a home bird. That's wrong. He should start every game.

He played Hoolahan wide on the left and that was wrong. He took a huge gamble on Brady and that was wrong. He tried Aiden McGeady in central midfield against Germany and that was wrong.

changes

Most worrying of all, he chops and changes his team constantly and appears unable to settle on a core group.

It's no surprise then that Ireland's fate in this campaign is clouded in ifs, buts and maybes - and we're only half way through.

Some people have calculators out but that's always an exercise in futility, based on a snapshot in time and all sorts of assumptions which may not turn out to be right.

O'Neill speaks about Scotland being must-win but based on the premise that you gain the bulk of your points at home and pick up what you can on the road, Poland was a must win and Ireland dropped two points.

In this case though, Scotland really is a must-win game and given the fact that there is nothing between these two teams on paper or on the pitch, the difference which could decide the game could well come from the managers.

In that regard, anyone who came into close contact with Gordon Strachan before the game in Glasgow had to be impressed by his poise and self-confidence.

There is another point of comparison which doesn't flatter O'Neill right now and that is supplied by his namesake, Michael, and Northern Ireland.

They are marching to France with enormous confidence and that can only come from the manager.

Ireland are staggering along in fits and starts but with no feeling of certainty or consistency and in the end, that must be down to the boss.

 

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