Monday 18 December 2017

O'Neill weighs options before crunch Austria clash

Martin O’Neill on the touchline during Sunday’s win over Uruguay at the Aviva Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill on the touchline during Sunday’s win over Uruguay at the Aviva Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile

It's been a long time since any Ireland manager had the luxury of a debate in his mind about midfield options.

Giovanni Trapattoni stifled all discussion by insisting on some very basic requirements from his men which left anyone with a trick or gamble in his locker on the outside with his nose pressed up against the window.

There was a time when all Ireland had was midfield men but since the end of the Jack Charlton era, the production line which delivered players like Roy Keane, Ronnie Whelan, Liam Brady and before that John Giles, has been faltering.

But now Martin O'Neill has a midfield puzzle to solve for Austria and what was ultimately a pretty comfortable win over Uruguay probably didn't clarify matters all that much.

By playing Robbie Brady on the right and Jonny Hayes on the left side of midfield with licence to switch, O'Neill threw his eye over some new options. He already seems to have more than enough.

Robbie Brady, pictured in action against Uruguay last Sunday. Pic: Sportsfile
Robbie Brady, pictured in action against Uruguay last Sunday. Pic: Sportsfile

"It was a matter of fitting them in," he said. "If Glenn (Whelan) and Harry Arter were going to be holding midfield players and Jeff (Hendrick) in front of them then you felt you had to get the other lads into the team.


"I've seen Robbie play wide on the right hand side for Norwich a couple of times, maybe at a time when his confidence wasn't great, he was happy enough to play there and I wanted Jonny to settle in his normal position to begin with.

"But he has also played wide right for Aberdeen, that was the case and there wasn't much more thinking than that... for Robbie to get some game time along with Hayes."

The simple fact that O'Neill has so many options must be seen as progress.

He never allows himself to leave a hostage to fortune and when the suggestion was made, he quickly demurred.

"In terms of progress, it's eventually qualification, isn't it really. But I think we all felt there was a stronger look about the side against Uruguay," he said.

"Stronger physically and obviously a bit more mature than the side that played Mexico.

"Hopefully some of those players will have gained great experience from that. Most important, some of the players who won't be involved on Sunday go back to their clubs and say: 'This is what I have to try and do to, one, get into the team and, two, to improve.'

"Even the youngest players in the side have to learn. John Egan has to learn, these boys have to learn. The midfielders, young Horgan is starting his career in England at this minute has to pick up, same with O'Dowda. They may as well have them pointed out to them, even the more experienced boys have to pick up."

O'Neill has a few other calls to make and it looks like he will agonise a great deal over the goalkeeper's slot.

Darren Randolph doesn't look as sure and composed as he did this time last summer and Keiren Westwood finally seems to be in the right place to push him.

"I have plenty to contemplate. I don't think I should really be discussing that particular issue now. I've been very pleased with both goalkeepers. Obviously I knew Westy at club level and you know my view of Westy, he's a really talented goalkeeper, just get his head right and he's great," he said.

And is his head right after Sheffield Wednesday's Championship play-off penalty shoot-out defeat?

"Well he's really fine now. I think he's got over the team losing out in the play-offs. Darren, I don't think he's let us down too often," he said.

In more general terms, O'Neill believes that there are still gaps in his team which are up for grabs.

"There are positions, you start to think: 'Can I slot someone in there? Can they do a job?'," he said.

"It's all on to the Austria game and I'm hoping there are players in there who think: 'Do you know what? I was pretty regular during the European Championship but maybe my position is in jeopardy now'.

"Jeopardy might be too strong a word, but might not start this game," he said.

"We have a couple of days to think about it. But as we get closer to the end of the week it's just full steam ahead and complete concentration on Austria," said the Ireland boss.

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