Thursday 17 January 2019

O'Neill can't follow van

Ireland don't have tools to try out Van Gaal-style three-man defence now

IT is difficult to imagine two people less alike than Martin O'Neill and Louis van Gaal but in the common language of football, a brash man's solution to the always tricky conundrum of winning can easily be shared by an introvert.

Van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford fresh from the World Cup and ready to impose a playing structure which Mick McCarthy tried many moons ago. He used Gary Breen, Ian Harte and Denis Irwin in Skopje back in 1997 and spawned a legend.

His new plan died a death that night. Ireland lost that game 3-2, blew the chance to go the 1998 World Cup finals and a three-man defence was never mentioned again. Well not by McCarthy at least. He got a right going over in the media.

Steve Staunton gave it a lash in a friendly against Chile and lost, and it now looks like O'Neill has something of a similar nature in mind for Georgia on Sunday. Or maybe not.


As always with this man, it is hard to sift meaning from his words and while the idea of John O'Shea flanked by Marc Wilson and Séamus Coleman with James McClean and Aiden McGeady in the wide positions sounds like a great plan if you're after goals against Gibraltar, the far reaches of Eastern Europe and a sultry night in Tbilisi may not be the ideal circumstances to give it whirl.

To be fair, he has been somewhat unlucky in the prolonged build-up to this week in as much as he has never had the chance to put out his best team. Even now, for this friendly against Oman, he must leave James McCarthy, the key man, on the bench and Jeff Hendrick is laid-up with a damaged shoulder.

He knows the 11 players he will pick for Georgia, all being available, and most of us won't be more than one player away when the list appears on Sunday evening.

But he also knows that throughout the string of friendlies Ireland have played since he took over from Giovanni Trapattoni, a three-man defence has never been on the menu.

He spoke yesterday about trying to be a bit more flexible in training this week and while claiming he would never have the time to drill a new system into his players, they needed to be adaptable should the need arise to make changes.

It was difficult to make sense of it but he lobbed in the three-man defence early in the sentence and pointed out, without mentioning Van Gaal, that the Dutchman didn't invent the system.

Some great names in football have played around with variations on the theme over the years but with one thing in common: Rinus Michels, Carlos Bilardo and Miroslav Blazevic, men who profited from the system, all had extraordinary players in their care and, most importantly, players they believed could play the way they wanted them to.

O'Neill would be foolish in the extreme to do what Van Gaal is stubbornly trying to do at Old Trafford without the right tools.

But if O'Neill is really considering a three-man defence for Georgia or any other game, it is surely because he believes he needs Marc Wilson in a central position and is not confident about a Stephen Ward/James McClean combination on the left.


McClean is far from certain to be fit for Georgia. He has been nursing and ankle injury for six weeks and he has had no contact training at all before tonight's game against Oman.

The absence of James McCarthy is another disappointment but the biggest gap of all will be the very large space in the Ireland dressing room that Richard Dunne once filled.

While he was fighting a seemingly intractable injury, there was always the hope, however forlorn that he might yet make it back to his best.

When he did just that and emerged as one of Harry Redknapp's promotion heroes, the opening game in the Euro 2016 qualifying series didn't look quite as difficult as it looked when the draw was made.

Maybe O'Neill knew or sensed something the rest of us didn't when he hedged about Dunne in the run-up to Ireland's four-game summer schedule, so much so that many felt he had written him out of his script.

But it was clear from O'Neill's response on the day after he retired and as recently as Monday that he would prefer to have him on board.

It is hard to imagine any talk of three-man defences if Dunne was in the camp. Even at 90pc of his best, he would have been a better option than a shot in the dark.

Oddly enough, Shay Given seemed to suggest that Dunne would return if Ireland badly needed him but the same was said about players as far back as Andy Townsend and the offer, real or imagined, has never accepted.

Given will pull on an Ireland goalkeepers jersey for the first time in more than two years against Oman but, unlike Dunne, 90pc of his best won't be good enough.

He will need first-team club football to seriously challenge but he is a lurking threat to David Forde and a goad from behind to make sure he understands the nature of international competition.

For Darron Gibson, the fixture is a return to the scene of an injury which, from his words yesterday, pushed him to the limit mentally and physically and left him with a clear understanding of how fragile his career actually is. It would be easy to forget about Gibson and concentrate on McCarthy's growing maturity or the possibilities suggested by Hendrick, but the Everton man has all the equipment if he could only find a way to use it.

Tagged from an early age at Manchester United as the new Roy Keane, he showed none of the Ireland No.2's ability to lead and to take hold of a game.


There were flashes and Alex Ferguson gave him every chance but he didn't expand to meet the size of the reputation which had built up around him and left for Everton and a new challenge.

He was doing well there and seemed ready to take his career into a more satisfying and rewarding place.

From an Ireland point of view, he was part of a nice little community at Goodison Park and in an improving team.

For that reason, the injury he sustained in the home game against Kazakhstan most have been a terrible blow.

It took 10 months to fix and, like Keane, it provided Gibson with an unlooked-for opportunity to visit the darker corners of his psyche and, in the process, reach some important conclusions about the direction he wanted to take.

If a brush with serious injury has injected him with a new sense of purpose, the result can only be good.

Tonight's game is a dress rehearsal of sorts and perhaps a final nudge for O'Neill in a few decision he still has to make - like the goalkeeping slot.

But after the final whistle goes, the long meandering path to Tblisi is almost done, O'Neill's nine-month limbo ends and his examination as an international manager begins.

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