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Tuesday 25 September 2018

O'Neill regime off to a flyer

Martin and Roy like a breath of fresh air as victory over Latvia ushers in new era for Ireland

FULL FOCUS: Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is pictured during last night’s friendly win over Latvia at the Aviva Stadium.
FULL FOCUS: Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is pictured during last night’s friendly win over Latvia at the Aviva Stadium.
Assistant manager Roy Keane and goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh.

IRELAND threw off the shackles fixed so stubbornly to minds and bodies during Giovanni Trapattoni's woebegone final year and gave Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane they kind of start they wanted.

A good win and achieved with some bright, energetic and entertaining football, this was the kind of start any new manager would give his right arm for and the show now moves onto Poland where O'Neill will ring the changes and look to increase his knowledge of the players at his disposal.

The big walk-up crowd predicted as a welcoming committee for the O'Neill never turned up and clearly, the wave of positive feelings towards the dynamic new management team needs more than just some good PR to convince them to leave their armchairs or pub stools on a Friday night for a game against Latvia.

But that's okay. It was a decent enough crowd and filled with kids. The one great spin-off from the FAI and IRFU's financial problems with the stadium is that thousands of teens and younger that might not have been to Lansdowne Road, have been there repeatedly.

This is a tangible good thing and an investment in the future. The only problem is that up until last night, young footballers watching their heroes in the cheap seats saw Giovanni Trapattoni's interpretation of the way they should play.

At least they know how bad it can get and that the only way is up. Many of these kids know Roy Keane as a legend, a man who made their father mad, sad or glad and their eyes are focused on James McCarthy or Seamus Coleman which is the way it should be.

O'Neill and Keane made a quiet entrance. There was no fanfare, no announcement and both men simply took a seat beside the dugout while a phalanx of cameramen took their shots.

Watching from on high in the press box, one thing was immediately noticeable. The boy Roy has what looks suspiciously like a small bald spot. Time passes and even he can't avoid the ravages of that.

All week, he looked like he could pull an Ireland jersey out of a skip and just start playing again and behind many wistful eyes, a video track of his greatest hits played on a loop.

 

IMPORTANT

Now, he has no impact on a game once it starts and somewhere down the line when the bullets are flying and Ireland are in the midst of a battle for their lives, it will be interesting to see how he copes with that kind of pressure.

Much more important than that however is how the players cope with the new management team and a bubbly start against Latvia seemed to mirror the positive vibes emanating from the camp all week.

As promised, O'Neill's side played a high line with John O'Shea camped out on the half-way mark any time Ireland were in possession. The tactic produced early pressure and a snap volley from James McCarthy which deserved a goal but was bounced off John O'Shea and flew wide.

Keane looked as sharp as he has been for some time, clearly anxious to impress upon O'Neill that he really is the man to lead the way into the next qualifying campaign. He had one chance, a snap-shot in the Latvian six yard box, to open the score which was smothered but when the same opportunity presented itself in the 22nd minute, he made no mistake.

A corner from the left by Aiden McGeady was flicked on by Mc Clean and Keane swivelled and shot though legs and into the net.

That goal brought his namesake to his feet. Roy Keane beat O'Neill into the air and his delight was obvious. This man is committed, no question about that.

The goal kicked off the first 'Keano, Keano, chant of the night which subsided and then rose again, perhaps a small homage to the one in the dugout.

If Ireland's top goalscorer, now one ahead of Ronaldo and Didier Drogba in the all-time list, made his point early and in typically dramatic fashion, Glenn Whelan, the target for much abuse during Trapattoni's time, was quietly impressive with his work rate and willingness to look for a pass.

McClean too did himself no harm at all and all around the pitch, there were performances which suggested a wholehearted response from the players to the new regime. This was an audition and they knew it.

The good news kept on coming and Shane Long finished off the best move of the night, a flowing gallop down the right from McClean and the perfect pass to the overlappinjg Coleman. Long smashed his cross home from close in.

O'Neill said afterwards: "I'm absolutely delighted. Delighted with the performance and the result obviously. There will be stern tests ahead. It was nice to win, nice to play well and nice to get a few goals.

"Some of the play was terrific. It's very early to make assumptions. The players enthusiasm for the game beforehand was very marked.

"But let's be fair about, this set of players like most sets of players, they want to play for their country. McClean was man of the match and I wouldn't argue with that."

The Ireland boss added: "We will change the side around for Tuesday night. They've come here and there is an enthusiasm about them. I wouldn't want to walk away after the second game in Poland thinking that somebody didn't get on the field. You'll be surprised by Roy. The players have really taken to him. He's been terrific, genuinely terrific."

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