Friday 18 January 2019

MARTIN O'Neill sent his back-up boys out for a training spin against Oman and walked away with a win but hardly the rip-roaring confidence booster he might have hoped for before Georgia.

MARTIN O'Neill sent his back-up boys out for a training spin against Oman and walked away with a win but hardly the rip-roaring confidence booster he might have hoped for before Georgia.

More significantly, it emerged during the game that James McClean will miss the trip to Tbilisi and is on his way back to Wigan for further treatment on his injured ankle.

"I'm not involved, I go back to the club and step up my rehab programme. I should be okay for the next round of games," said McClean. "I'm really, really disappointed not to be playing."

He didn't miss a great deal at Lansdowne Road however and neither did the thousands of supporters who voted with their feet and stayed away.

The Gardai didn't even have to implement a traffic plan. Crosstown traffic rumbled unhindered through the junction just before the DART station near the stadium and even the ubiquitous hot dog and burger vans hadn't bothered to set up a pitch.


Harsh econonmic circumstances have hit the football family hard and the street traders had read the omens for Oman correctly.

If there was 10,000 in the game, that was a generous estimate. On a day when the news bulletins spoke of falling jobless totals and a generally brighter outlook for the nation, the Aviva gave a truer picture of reality.

Disposable income is just not available for fripperies like a warm-up game against Oman. The attendance for the same fixture in Craven Cottage a few years ago was more than double this.

The tiny crowd created an eerie atmosphere, something like you might find at a reserve game in one of the big Premier League stadiums, when decent players are on show but no hard edge.

O'Neill added his bit to the general feeling uf unease by picking a team which had bench written all over it and contained an oddity, David Meyler in the right-full slot.

Maybe that's what O'Neill meant when he spoke about flexibility in the pre-match press conference. Ireland are short in defence and it may take unorthodox solutions to plug gaps.

Or maybe he just didn't want to risk any of his first team picks in a nothing game. Before the kick-off, the debate was whether Meyler was, in fact, going to sit in front of a defensive three but it was clear from the first blow that he was simply being asked to try something new as a defender.

It was also clear that this was going to be nothing more than a training session. Sure, Wes Hoolahan was on the pitch from the start and Shay Given too but all O'Neill's big guns were rested. He is a cautious man.


Early action in the game centred around Hoolahan's attempts to break through a blanket of red shirted midfielders which were energetic if ultimately fruitless.

When the breakthrough came, it arrived via a set-piece and high quality one at that.

Robbie Brady whipped in a brilliant corner from the right to the near post where Kevin Doyle rose majestically above two defenders to nod the ball into the net.

With the news breaking during the game that James McClean had gone back home for treatment on his injured ankle, Anthony Pilkington's performance was worth extra scrutiny and apart from anything else, he looks fit and strong.

Up to now, the problem for Pilkington has been co-ordinating availability with competitive fixtures but this time all the stars seemed to have lined up properly. He switched with Robbie Brady throughout the night and threw in the odd trick which offered a glimpse of what might be possible.

He had his work cut out to try and find a gap in the Oman backline, which was usually reinforced by the rest of the team, but he did well enough, ably backed up by Meyler.

Quite why O'Neill chose Meyler as a full-back is unknown but perhaps a calculation has been made and with a surfeit of central midfielders in O'Neill's squad, a call was made to try and expand Ireland's defensive pool.

He almost added a beauty to Doyle's opener in the 36th minute with a wonderfully floated chip which beat Al Habsi but bounced off the left angle.

The second-half continued as the first ended with Oman packing defence and trying the odd breakaway but largely, the ball was left to green shirts and when O'Neill finally moved to change some of the personnel in them, the pace picked up.

Robbie Keane, Shane Long and Aiden McGeady came on and the Everton winger was in the action almost immediately.

He could - and probably should - have scored when he found himself free in the box and on the end of a deflected Stephen Ward cross. He jinked left and tried to curl a shot around Al Hamsi but the Wigan 'keeper saved well.

The second came with just ten minutes left and from another Brady corner, The ball broke off a defender to Alex Pearce, who found a tiny gap and threaded a fine shot through it.

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