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Saturday 21 October 2017

Results do the talking for O'Neill

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and defender Shane Duffy celebrate the win over Wales in Cardiff on Monday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and defender Shane Duffy celebrate the win over Wales in Cardiff on Monday. Photo: Sportsfile

When a manager walks his own road, the sense of satisfaction when success arrives is sweet. Only he truly knows how he did it. The rest of us can only watch and try and understand his thinking.

There have been many times in the last four years when I doubted Martin O'Neill's approach to winning football matches and I'm sure there will be similar times in the future.

But football is about the here and now and in that sense, O'Neill is above all doubt until the World Cup play-offs take place.

That's the nature of his job. He's a hero and then zero in an eyeblink or vice versa. That's what football does to us and that's why we love it so much.

Firstly, O'Neill earned his two-year contract extension in Cardiff. It was a gamble by the FAI, I'm in no doubt about that. There was no reason not to wait until after the game against Wales or even after the play-offs before making a final call.

Goalscorer James McClean celebrates Ireland’s World Cup Group D win over Wales in Cardiff on Monday. Photo: Reuters
Goalscorer James McClean celebrates Ireland’s World Cup Group D win over Wales in Cardiff on Monday. Photo: Reuters

Debate

But the result in Wales removes the need for further debate. When any Ireland manager takes up the job, second place in a group is the target and O'Neill has finished second twice.

Sure, we could have a long debate about the fact that Ireland let a dominant position in the group slip and in my opinion, unnecessarily. But it's wasted breath now.

The important point is that the players responded to O'Neill when the chips were down and once again rose to a challenge when they had no fall-back position. I suspect if this game had been much earlier in the group, Ireland might not have been able to protect James McClean's lead goal.

But they did protect it and funnily enough, I was confident they would once McClean's shot rattled the net. There was none of the indecision and greyness about the team personality which we saw in other games. This was all business and full of character.

I've come to the conclusion that the ingredients which we take as a given with Irish players are becoming more and more significant as the years go by. Guts and determination will take you a long way now in international football, further than ever before.

As standards even out and lesser teams improve with good coaching and organisation, Ireland are as good or as bad as most teams but seem to have huge reserves when it comes to courage and commitment.

I'm not sure that this quality has always been in Irish players because in my day, only one team qualified from these groups and we were usually third or fourth so we never formed a habit of playing and winning important games. I think we now have a library of moments to lean on and a tradition built up over the last three decades which other teams do not have.

There is no substitute for experience when the pressure is as intense as it was against Wales. This group is seasoned as far as winner-takes-all encounters are concerned.

That cannot be overestimated. There was a clear difference between the way Ireland coped with the pressure of the night and Wales.

When the key moment arrived for James McClean, he was able to keep his head but the Welsh response to his goal was the opposite. It was like the air going out of a balloon and it was clearly visible throughout the stadium.

For the Irish players, it is almost as if these lads need a gun to their head to bring out the levels of concentration needed to pull off a win like this one. That's an exaggeration but the point is valid.

Many have asked why Ireland were not able to deliver the same performance against Georgia in Tbilisi, once O'Neill had decided not to run with Wes Hoolahan for that game?

I can't answer that other than to say that the manager takes the hit when performances are poor and there is no obvious explanation.

The Hoolahan discussion will continue and so too, I reckon, will the inconsistency of selection which has been such a trademark of O'Neill's time with Ireland.

But O'Neill has results to put against all arguments about whether he is right or wrong in his approach.

Despite dodgy displays along the qualification journey - Wales, Austria and Serbia at home and Georgia away spring to mind - he seems to be able to focus his men to a very fine pitch right at the end when there is no wriggle room left.

He did it against Germany two years ago and again against Italy in France last summer.

Now he's done again against Wales and that's too often for it to be luck or coincidence.

The play-off path looks like it will be a lot trickier this time, given that Giovani Trapattoni pulled the plum draw when Estonia came out of the hat and O'Neill himself was favoured by fortune when UEFA paired his team with Bosnia Herzegovina.

From the way I read it, it's one from Italy, Croatia, Denmark or Switzerland and Ireland will need every ounce of guts and determination they can call on to find a way to Russia.

I wouldn't rule it out with these lads, no matter who they draw.

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