Saturday 18 November 2017

Paul Hyland: 'Ireland on the brink of greatness'

Experience can help Ireland grab place in finals

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill

euro 2016 play-off 1st leg: bosnia v ireland (live rte2/sky sports 7.45)

AFTER two years sprinkled with far too much of the ordinary and not very much of the spectacular, Martin O'Neill, somehow, stands on the brink of a huge achievement.

Honesty dictates that Ireland go into this game against Bosnia as underdogs.

Mehmed Bazdarevic has the players and a recent form line which is ominous. O'Neill, on the other hand, has mostly traded in uncertainty.

But still he finds himself on the cusp of qualification, a rare bird for Ireland even if the sob story about our long toil in the wilderness is more than overstated.

Go back through the history books and you'll find that since Jack Charlton broke the jinx in 1988, Ireland have never been far away from major finals.

Between 1988 and the World Cup in America, Ireland missed out on just one tournament, Euro 1992 in Sweden.

Between America and Japan/Korea, Ireland were involved in four play-off showdowns against Holland, Belgium, Turkey and Iran.

Republic of Ireland squad training. Stadion Bilino Pole, Zenica, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Republic of Ireland squad training. Stadion Bilino Pole, Zenica, Bosnia & Herzegovina

The context for most of the glass-half-full commentary about Ireland's qualification efforts lies between 2002 in Japan and Korea and the Euro 2012 finals in Poland. Even then, there was that epic play-off against France.

None of that, of course, matters tonight in Zenica, other than one important fact. Ireland have plenty of experience of the play-off environment to dip into.

People like Roy Keane and Robbie Keane were centrally involved and can bring much to the table in the hours before Ireland face off against Bosnia for the first-leg.

O'Neill was forceful and thoughtful in equal measure at yesterday's pre-match media event.

He wouldn't let an ounce of information slip out but he did suggest that change might be in the air.

What that might mean is anybody's guess.

Most Ireland fans would like to see Wes Hoolahan start and the same cohort liked what they saw in the Aviva when he gave Hoolahan licence to roam and pushed Robbie Brady into midfield.

But there is a case to be made for packing Ireland's midfield with as many big men as he can and presenting Bosnia with a physical challenge they will not enjoy.

With that in mind, the late loss of David Meyler was a blow. O'Neill is a believer and Roy Keane has great time for the abrasive Hull City midfielder.

Until he was crocked by an unfortunate collision with Marc Wilson, he had a great chance of starting; perhaps alongside Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick.

O'Neill also namechecked Harry Arter as someone who can offer options and it does seem as if the Ireland boss is genuinely considering a departure from what we have seen so far.

Again, it must be pointed out that much of what we have seen from Ireland during O'Neill's time has been disjointed and completely unpredictable so a change to something more coherent would be welcome.

Nobody believed that Ireland were playing well enough to come within a mile of qualification after Scotland drew at the Aviva in June and there were good reasons for that.

But then he pulled victory against Germany out of the hat and suddenly, a hopeless position was filled with new possibilities.

Following the script, O'Neill watched a team which beat the world champions play very poorly against Poalnd.

He was roundly criticised for his team selection.

Central to that criticism was Hoolahan and it is very difficult to escape the feeling that O'Neill's time as Ireland boss will be defined by how he uses the Norwich playmaker in these two games.

Gut instinct says he will revert to type and try to play the percentages.

If he can escape from Bosnia with a point, or even a low score defeat, he will see it as work well done.


But he need only look to his peers around these islands for evidence of how adventure and imagination has helped Northern Ireland, Wales and England.

O'Neill could not disguise his envy of the position won by Michael O'Neill, Roy Hodgson and Chris Coleman, who already have their tents pitched in France.

"No pressure then," he laughed. "It's fantastic that Northern Ireland have qualified and it would be great if could both do it.

"We've still to get there. Tonight, I'm sure Michael is having a cigarette, smoking and enjoying himself.

"I feel envious they are in those positions and I'd like to join them on Monday night - and so would my counterpart here in Bosnia."

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