Saturday 25 November 2017

Nervous O'Neill talks up tricky Georgia

Ireland players (l-r) Jonathon Walters, Stephen Ward and John O’Shea at training in Abbotstown yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile
Ireland players (l-r) Jonathon Walters, Stephen Ward and John O’Shea at training in Abbotstown yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at training yesterday ahead of tonight’s clash with Georgia. Pic: Sportsfile

They've been laying it on thick, Martin and Roy, over the last few days. Georgia are to be feared, never mind the minnow tag.

But if they are not minnows, they are still relatively small fry and it's not really insulting to call them that as O'Neill suggested. Their results place them and they don't win many games.

Keane was right when he said they lose a lot of competitive matches by a single goal and must be frustrated by that reality but the important word here is 'lose'.

Sure they have the odd breakout but it is never wrong to suggest that Ireland should win their home games against teams seeded below them in the draw, even if Georgia is one of the stronger small nations.

O'Neill thinks so and may even believe it.

He would cite as evidence to support his position the sea change which has occurred in the last ten years in international football where there are now no great teams, a lot of ordinary teams and the rest.


But it is always difficult to hear an Irish manager follow a practice which is now the standard in international football. He avoided anything which might suggest confidence.

As ever before a game, O'Neill was tight as a drum and very uncomfortable with a couple of questions.

He peremptorily dismissed a harmless query about Wes Hoolahan's place in the scheme of things, bridling at the suggestion that anyone would ask him about the make-up of his team in a pre-match press conference which is designed precisely for that purpose.

O'Neill's next uncomfortable moment came when someone suggested that Ireland have not been playing to their potential.

"I don't agree with that," he said but seemed to contradict himself a few questions later when he admitted that Ireland failed to protect the ball in Serbia.

Asked what improvement he hoped to see in these two games, he opened up.

"Players should feel more self confidence to deal with the ball," he said.

"Dealing with the ball when you've got space is not what I'm talking about. It's in tighter situations which the players are capable of doing.

"But sometimes you go a ten minute spell where you give it away needlessly and find it a heck of a job to get it back.

"The pitch was difficult, difficult for both teams and there was a spell when we did give it away.

"But I attribute that to the fact that three of the players hadn't played a game and I'm not saying they were the ones giving the ball away

"There was tiredness and we had to fight through that playing away from home. Maybe the opposition didn't give us the ball, maybe they closed us down quickly. An improvement on Serbia would be better ball retention," he said.

It would be naïve to think that O'Neill would not bridle again at the suggestion that a team in his care was not reaching it's potential.

Nor would he ever put his hands up and agree that Ireland withdraw into a peculiar shell when they score early and can't keep the ball to save their lives when the pressure is on.

It is more complicated than that anyway. As Keane pointed out in black and white during the week, Ireland have had this problem for 30 years.

The comfort of the long ball has become deeply-embedded in the culture of Irish football and it will take more than O'Neill to shift the nation from that position.

If we're honest, most of us have an ambivalence about the long ball, fully aware that teams based on the tactic have qualified for final tournaments six times since Jack Charlton introduced us to the dubious pleasures of a parabolic curve.


Before that, Ireland qualified for nothing at all and while purists quibble, it remains the default tactic.

O'Neill made a plucky defence of his players' basic skills.

"I think we can do and we proved it. We proved it in a lot of the games we played in the Euros and big matches here where we needed ball to score goals," he said.

Perhaps that is true but there was awful lot of the other stuff too.

Hopefully, it will be better against Georgia tonight.

Ireland to win 2-0.

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