Thursday 23 January 2020

O'Neill won't change course on Wes despite debate

Hoolahan pictured with Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at the end of the game. Photo: PA Wire
Hoolahan pictured with Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at the end of the game. Photo: PA Wire

There's not much point in wasting any more energy on the Wes Hoolahan debate. Take what he gives Ireland when he gets the chance and hope it's enough.

Martin O'Neill has made up his mind, made it up a long time ago if the truth be told, and nothing is likely to change his mind about Hoolahan.

From where he's sitting, which is the most important seat in the house, he is playing to the strengths of the players in his squad and he clearly doesn't believe he has enough quality to sustain an approach based on passing.

Hoolahan is just another version of a debate which has been ongoing for a long time.

Its roots are in Jack Charlton's decision to force Liam Brady's natural skills into a box and then keep Dave O'Leary on the outside looking in for longer than was necessary.

Wes Hoolahan in action against Austria’s Julian Baumgartlinger during the World Cup Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan in action against Austria’s Julian Baumgartlinger during the World Cup Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile


O'Leary's spell in the dunce's corner was all about discipline and Charlton was happy to solve what would have been a big selection debate by keeping him out of his squad.

Giovanni Trapattoni didn't try too hard to bring Stephen Ireland on board and hindsight tells us that this worked out well for all of us but he used a matter of discipline to exclude Andy Reid and was happy to do it.

He couldn't find a place for Reid's looser approach to the game and he dropped him.

Hoolahan too was a victim of Trapattoni's extreme pragmatism and it should be remembered that O'Neill, at the very least, has recognised his ability to turn a game with caps.

But O'Neill clearly doesn't trust him to start when he has a full range of midfield options available, which, James McCarthy aside, he had for Austria.

O'Neill's judgement was that Hoolahan could not take Ireland up to the required pace from a standing start and create the front foot approach which both he and Roy Keane talked up before the game.

The call looked like the wrong one because the team he picked failed to deliver on the same requirement. In that scenario, Hoolahan's claims for inclusion from the start seem cast-iron.

Robbie Brady was a big disappointment and is running on low confidence. He needs some sun on his back and a rest after a pretty big year.

Jeff Hendrick too looks jaded and lifeless. Where has the buccaneering all-action midfielder we saw in France gone?

Glenn Whelan did what Glenn Whelan has been told to do by two international managers and will always be on the wrong side of the debate because he doesn't ever stray from the script.

Harry Arter has work to do catching up with international football. He did a lot of running against Austria without achieving a great deal.

This leaves James McClean, still grappling with his temperament but probably the only Irish player who followed Keane's battle cry and tried to go to war.

All major battles are usually preceded by an aerial bombardment to soften up the opposition but most of Ireland's early long balls were overhit or mopped up easily by the Austrian defence because the chase for the second ball wasn't always committed enough.

O'Neill cannot be faulted for that but you have to wonder about all the talk of Ireland being at home and the urgent need to take the game to Austria when he sent out a team with two holding midfielders.

Later, when the 1-1 draw between Serbia and Wales was confirmed, O'Neill admitted that the overwhelming feeling left behind by the day was one of frustration both for players and management.

"Yes, a sense of frustration, no question about that. Walters gives us the equaliser which I felt our play in the second half deserved, and momentum with it," he said.

He was critical of the first-half performance and made no attempt to sugar coat the issue.

"We have to do much, much better in the first half. It's a 90-minute game," said O'Neill.

"You don't want to be trailing in matches here and fighting for your lives to get something out of it.

"We have to address that. The whole intention was to get on the front foot and we did anything but that in the first 15 minutes.

"Our sloppy play allowed them to take their time and work their way into the game, and as a consequence they took the lead.

"I think we were a wee bit nervous at the start. We've given the ball away, Austria played their way into the game, they quelled the crowd and they felt quite comfortable.

"We had to take them out of that comfort zone. We had to do better. Our intention was to win that game."

Hoolahan only knows the front foot. The moment he arrives on a pitch, all around him know they will be asked to do more. He changes the way players think and creates an expectation in the crowd.

He has changed games for O'Neill and will do so as long as he stays fit but he will only start when there is no other option and if everyone isn't used to that by now, they should be.

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