Saturday 16 December 2017

John Giles - 'O'Neill doesn't trust his best player'

Wes Hoolahan
Wes Hoolahan

Matt Busby had a way of telling a player he wasn't playing in a big game which always made me smile. It made a hard job easier.

He would call a player over after training and ask him how he thought he played in the previous match and naturally enough, nobody wanted to sound arrogant or too cocky.

So the response was usually understated. Maybe something like... "alright boss, I think I'm doing okay, but there's always room for improvement."

This would bring an immediate response along the lines of: "I agree, you could be doing a lot better. You're dropped for the next game."

The story is a true one because I witnessed it myself several times and it came to mind during the last week when the issue of Wes Hoolahan's fitness became the subject of heated debate.

Martin O'Neill gave a detailed explanation yesterday and said that it was Hoolahan who made the call on his readiness for a full 90 minutes against Poland - we must accept that at face value.

What jars with me is my experience of playing, even though it was a long time ago. I don't think I ever met a player who didn't want to play in every game if he could and often when he probably should not.

By the time you get to the professional level, the kind of players who have a fitful commitment to their craft are almost all long fallen by the wayside.

Tiredness can be a factor but never an excuse for a player, never something that would limit him so much or change his attitude about playing. Players wants to play

Until you actually go out and play, you never know. I had some of my best performances when I felt worn out before games. Once you get into the rhythm of the match, everything falls into place. Players at all levels have had this experience.

After last Thursday's heart-lifting win, O'Neill said a couple of significant things and they were connected.

Firstly, he accepted that he would have taken a play-off before the final two games of the group series and secondly, that Hoolahan was the wrong side of 30 and might struggle over two games.

Those two comments underline my belief that O'Neill never planned to play Hoolahan from the start in Poland and that he still doesn't trust him in away games.

I don't agree with that assessment but it is the manager's narrative and the only important one.

It's worthwhile stating a few truths here. Against Germany, Hoolahan was Ireland's best p[layer and I don't think O'Neill would dispute that.

If you look at the best moments of the campaign to date, Hoolahan has been centrally involved in almost all of them and I think it is fair to say that Ireland play their best football with him in the thick of it.

What gave me such hope after the German win was that it confirmed, in what I thought as an inescapable way, that Ireland must start every game with Hoolahan if at all possible.

Yet he didn't against Poland but was able to run for 22 minutes at the end of the game.

So why does all of this matter? Simple. It's about attitude. For me, the game against Poland was a chance to throw everything at the attempt to gain automatic qualification but O'Neill had already booked his place in the play-offs.

I think he got caught between two stools and that was reflected in the team he picked.

Against Germany, Ireland didn't dominate the world champions in any way but Hoolahan kept the ball, gave his team mates time to breathe and sparked Robbie Brady's creative streak into life.

Against Poland, Glenn Whelan sat in front of John O'Shea and Richard Keogh while the game went on around him.

And yet, Poland were a jittery mess for long spells in the game and I thought, were there for the taking.

As I said, O'Neill has his own narrative and in reality, it's the only one that counts in terms of the management of the Ireland senior team.

But I have mine and when I'm working, I try very hard to tell what see or if warranted, what I don't see.

What I saw against Germany was an Ireland with promise, an Ireland that can trouble world-class players and one that can deliver a big result. I saw a breakthrough after years of failed attempts against top tier nations.

What I saw against Poland was confusion. I didn't see enough of Wes Hoolahan.

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