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Saturday 22 September 2018

O'Neill has raised bar

Uplifting win against Latvia has increased expectations for new boss

Republic of Ireland's Robbie Keane celebrates scoring his side's first goal against Latvia. Picture credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Republic of Ireland's Robbie Keane celebrates scoring his side's first goal against Latvia. Picture credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

MARTIN O'NEILL may come to regret the fact that he was the man who finally injected some life into the Aviva Stadium, maybe for the first time since the venue opened its doors.

Expectation is a remarkable thing and after hammering Latvia 3-0 and in a way which made Giovanni Trapattoni's pet theories on Irish footballers look foolish, O'Neill has turbo-charged the hopes and dreams of supporters.

That's a good thing and a bad thing. Good for the faithful perhaps but not so good for Ireland's new management team.

It is certainly good for the FAI. The atmosphere at the Aviva was as good as it has ever been and there is now no doubt whatsoever that Trapattoni sucked all the joy out of supporting Ireland in a gradual process which began the moment he took the job and reached a nadir against Sweden last month.

Giddy

Given something to sing about, the crowd were more than happy to oblige and as they streamed away from Ballsbridge, there was a sense of buoyancy in the air which was almost giddy.

O'Neill seemed to realise this over the weekend when he was at pains to point out that he has hardly been in the job a damp day, never mind a wet one, and that there would be many bumps in the road ahead.

It is obvious that O'Neill had underestimated the hunger for something different after a year and half of stagnation caused by Trapattoni's trenchant views.

It is equally clear that he didn't quite grasp the potential scale of the response to Roy Keane's appointment as his No 2.

The Corkman adds another layer of expectation and while the attention will die down eventually, it might never reduce to the point where the new Ireland management team is comfortable with it.

But such is the bed O'Neill has made for himself and after tomorrow evening's outing in Poznan against Poland, he will have time to sit down and perhaps develop a method to cope with both the heightened expectation and Keane's presence on the Ireland training pitch for the next few years.

He will also have to complete his back-up team and O'Neill will be back in Dublin over the next few weeks to confirm his final line-up with the FAI.

Steve Walford, who has worked as a head coach at every club O'Neill has managed since Wycombe Wanderers back in 1990, appears to be the priority signing, although the suggestion that he would be a necessary component because of the fact that both O'Neill and Keane have not previously shown a fondness for a hands-on approach to training seems like a moot point.

Keane seemed to take great delight in getting down and dirty with the players during training all week and since he has flagged his need to develop a refined method of managing men, we can expect this to continue.

It was wonderful to see Keane levitate off his seat when Robbie Keane scored the first against Latvia on Friday night and to see his arm raised in salute for the next two.

If anyone doubted his commitment or believed that he would be a negative influence on O'Neill and the players, this was proof that his heart is where it should be and, like everyone else, an Irish goal is a thing of beauty to him.

Much has been made of the refreshingly open way Ireland took on Latvia and it certainly lifted hearts to see clever and even intricate passing used as a means of attack.

But while O'Neill's willingness to let his players play was an excellent way to launch his term as Ireland boss, he was quick to point out that circumstances will often dictate the way he plans for a game and that another method might be required when competitive football resumes in September next year.

For the moment, O'Neill must plan for Poland without Andy Reid, who probably would have started but is now back in Nottingham having treatment on an injured hamstring. Joey O'Brien has also withdrawn.

"In terms of injuries, we will be going to Poznan without Andy Reid and Joey O'Brien who have been given permission to return to their clubs," he said. "Poland will be a tough test for the players. They have some real threats in their squad but we will try to play to our strengths and show the same focus we displayed against Latvia. The match will also provide me with an opportunity to look at some of the options we have within the squad."

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