Saturday 23 March 2019

O'Neill must place more trust in players

Rep of Ireland 2 USA 1

LEVELLER: (l-r) Goalscorer Graham Burke celebrates with his Ireland team-mate Darragh Lenihan at the Aviva Stadium
LEVELLER: (l-r) Goalscorer Graham Burke celebrates with his Ireland team-mate Darragh Lenihan at the Aviva Stadium
WINNER: Alan Judge (left) fires home Ireland’s winner in the friendly against the USA as James McClean looks on
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill

There is one Irishman going to the World Cup finals, after all, as Martin O'Neill will spend a chunk of this month in Russia, on pundit duties with ITV.

He will have plenty of time to think on trains and planes across the Russian landmass as he heads from game to game. And the Republic's manager needs to reflect long and hard on all that we've seen from his Ireland side in this last week.

Saturday's 2-1 win over the USA closes out one of the most forgettable international seasons in recent memory: three wins from nine games, only one of those (away to Wales) noteworthy, with defender Shane Duffy emerging as Ireland's joint top scorer over that season. He scored two goals.

Beating a young and experimental USA side at home ends a four-game wait for a victory, but is not a lot to shout about.

If the poverty of Ireland's pallid display away to France can be excused by the sheer strength and power of the far-superior opposition, then a defeat of a new-look USA outfit has to take into account the weak nature of their squad, players who are (technically) attached to clubs like Chelsea, Spurs and PSG but are nowhere near the first teams.

The lesson from Saturday's fare for O'Neill is that he has to place more trust in his players, foster a willingness to get on the ball, use the ball and play football. Alan Judge emerged as the match-winning hero for the Republic, and deserved every accolade that came his way after a nightmare time with injury. But without his injury, would a fully-fit Judge have been accommodated into an O'Neill team?

O'Neill's post-match comments about Graham Burke were clumsy and unfair, the manager praising Burke for his goal but adding, with a needless barb, that much of the game "passed him by."

Burke should not be given special treatment just because he plays for a League of Ireland club, the same is demanded of him as everyone else so this is not a flag-waving exercise in defence of the League of Ireland.

The game did bypass Burke for spells but he was constantly looking for a ball which would not come his way. The game in Paris completely passed by without a contribution from Alan Browne or Callum O'Dowda, but why single out Burke for what O'Neill saw (or didn't see) in Dublin and excuse Browne and O'Dowda?

Bar Declan Rice, no Irish player emerged with great credit from the defeat to Turkey in March, but O'Neill didn't name names of those for who the game "passed them by". It can't simply be a case of snobbery because Burke is a home-based player, surely?

Players like Judge and Burke have a skillset which has been absent from the Ireland squad for some time. Their talents need to be treasured and encouraged, not blown off casually by flippant remarks from the manager.

The test will come at the start of next season when O'Neill names his squad for the opening Nations League qualifier against Wales.

James McCarthy, Robbie Brady and Seán Maguire should be back from injury and Darren Randolph recovered from his operation while Stephen Ward will be available and you'd expect most of those to go straight into the team.

A batch of players who missed this international trip (Keogh, Pearce, Christie, Whelan, Hogan, Hourihane, McGeady, Clark, O'Kane, McGoldrick, Westwood) were absent, for a variety of reasons.

Does O'Neill simply hand those players with long-standing service in the squad a ticket back to international football, on the back of what they've done in the past, or does he reflect on how the fringe players fared against France and the USA?

Will someone like Burke lose out once a player like, say, David McGoldrick is fit again?

Rice, Darragh Lenihan, Burke and Judge showed against the USA that they deserve more caps and more chances, but only O'Neill can make that happen.

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