herald

Sunday 11 December 2016

Paul Hyland: Time to remove doubts, Martin

Republic of Ireland v Georgia, live RTÉ 2/Sky Sports 2 (ko 7.45)

Republic of Ireland manager, Martin O’Neill
Republic of Ireland manager, Martin O’Neill

There was a moment during the pre-match briefing for Georgia when Robbie Keane was asked to stray from his typically positive, player-centred comments on the task ahead to talk about the psychology of Ireland's less than convincing home form.

Beside Robbie, Martin O'Neill's face froze and he seemed to steel himself for something wayward, something from his skipper which might leave a hostage to fortune behind.

In reality, it was an innocuous enough question which Keane handled comfortably but O'Neill's reaction was revealing. The cold frown which crept across his face was about control.

He protects every item of information within a haze of diversion. He dissembles as easily as he breathes; loathe to allow any tiny morsel slip out.

No problem. That's his way and it has served him reasonably well over the years. But there's more to international management than keeping things tight.

Elsewhere in The Herald, Ronnie Whelan makes the case for a leader to emerge from within the Ireland senior squad. He picks James McCarthy as the man to do it and that would be welcome.

Far more valuable would be for O'Neill to announce himself as an international manager with a performance and a win over Georgia which allows no doubt about his ability to work at this level. Let's be honest, there are doubts.

Since the draw with Scotland in Dublin, O'Neill has often repeated that the group would twist and turn and that Ireland were not out of the running.

It went against the flow. After that draw, most of us felt that the easiest route to the European Championship finals of all time was now paved with sharp glass.

There were good reasons for that view and O'Neill gains no credibility for simply making a prediction which came true.

Ireland needed a favour from Georgia because O'Neill's Ireland dropped too many points to get to France without one and that had nothing to do with clairvoyance. That was about poor form, poor football and pure luck.

Aiden McGeady's last-gasp conjuring trick contribution to the qualification effort in Tbilisi and John O'Shea's mad gallop up the pitch in Munich were all that stood between Ireland and a humiliating scrap with tonight's opposition for fourth place in the group and abject failure after Strachan's men took three points in Glasgow and a point in June.

Georgia's win over Scotland was a rare flower indeed, one that blossoms perhaps once a decade. Fate is generally not kind to Irish football fans and it would be no surprise at all if Scotland pulled a big result out of the bag tonight and something less celebratory happened at the Aviva.

That's a feeling which has been hard to shake throughout O'Neill's, as Dion Fanning put it "curiously uninspiring" time as Ireland boss; that the players aren't really sure what they're about from one game to the next.

O'Neill portrays an image of a man engaged in some kind of perpetual balancing act with his players; weighing their potential value down to ounces of energy and match readiness.

Cliché

There was a time when the shirt was enough. It's not a cliché to reference Davey Langan and maybe O'Neill should pin his picture up to remind the players that there is such a thing as mind over matter.

When Niall Quinn retired from international football, he expressed his concern about the removal of a wild gene from Irish football, which Langan epitomised and which made unlikely things happen.

He believed that with a shrinking talent pool and a harder route than ever to the top in England, Ireland's best footballers would need this x-factor more than ever. He was right.

Giovanni Trapattoni suppressed it until he had a team of robots. He had the authority and willpower to be the team's backbone but he left a shell behind. O'Neill has been picking up the pieces.

So far, he hasn't delivered anything solid, nothing to encourage positive thinking. Ireland has no identity and we need to see a bold statement of intent about where O'Neill wants to take this team.

Promoted articles

Entertainment News