Friday 19 January 2018

Paul Hyland: The O'Neill Keane dream team needs to deliver now

O'Neill needs win over Poland to allay sense of uncertainty

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane, centre, with manager Martin O'Neill and goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh during squad training. Gannon Park, Malahide, Co. Dublin
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane, centre, with manager Martin O'Neill and goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh during squad training. Gannon Park, Malahide, Co. Dublin
Shay Given and David Forde

HERE'S a statistic to chew on. Martin O'Neill has been the Ireland manager for 13 games. It doesn't feel like it and to be blunt, it doesn't really look like it either.

If there is a pattern to O'Neill's Ireland, it's elusive. If there's a method in play, it's difficult to discern. Everything is vague and that's a surprise - after 13 games.

The one thing everyone believed that the FAI's dream team appointment would bring was strength and solidity. How could they not, given their reputations?

To be brutally honest, the double act has been chaotic and so far, delivered very little in the way of visible progress. The bookish and vaguely befuddled image presented by O'Neill combined with the PR carnage which surrounds Roy Keane has added considerably to the sense of uncertainty which surrounds the entire project.

At club level, O'Neill's teams were clever, aggressive, confident and dogged, great qualities when you're working in the margins of the transfer market trying to combine Champions League football and with the bread and butter of the SPL.

When he was announced as Ireland manager, everyone felt that he would bring those qualities and freshness to a group of players bowed down by the demands of an old regime

Fast forward to early this week. He has seven points in the bank, four points on the road and it's all to play for against a hungry Poland team at the Aviva. Six hours of competitive football should have refined all the work he did during the friendlies and by now, his picture of the Ireland squad should be complete.

But on consecutive days this week, O'Neill spoke about the big decisions he has to make for this game, a lot of them apparently. He has over 20 hours of football to look at and analyse. He should know his best team. You get the feeling he doesn't.

On Sunday at the Aviva, O'Neill faces his first bare-knuckle ride as an international manager. In amongst those 13 games, he's had some big ones but none which could indelibly define him at this level.

Germany was a punt and with a very lucky point in the bag, O'Neill went to Glasgow in November with a free ticket.

He didn't cash it in but if you did the maths when the group was drawn, one point out of away games against Germany and Scotland was realistic. It could easily have been none.

Neither game was ever going to be decisive, even retrospectively but this one against Poland could make or break him. It is worrying that his mind seems to be cluttered with uncertainties.

The first is No. 1, David Forde and the temptation O'Neill is battling to give Shay Given the goalkeeper's shirt.

Across the back, two positions are in play. Seamus Coleman and John O'Shea start, as does Marc Wilson but like every manager since Steve Staunton retired, O'Neill has a problem at left-full.

Stephen Ward is neither fit nor ready for such a big game so O'Neill must decide whether to play Wilson there and partner O'Shea with Richard Keogh, throw Cyrus Christie in at the deep end or let Robbie Brady loose.

Decisions, decisions. Should he play Wes Hoolahan with Shane Long and leave Robbie Keane on the bench as he did in Scotland? Is James McClean's ankle worth the risk? Can Keane still deliver?

Roberto Martinez has done his very best to make sure that uncertainty will always swirl around a quarter of his team but from the outside looking in, it looks as if O'Neill hasn't really done anything to address that situation.

He has taken a soft line on issues of availability or clashes with club managers and seemed more than willing to accommodate all sorts of requests and sick notes last summer.

O'Neill has constantly changed his team and even if you allow him some grace for the hollows and bumps which make an international manager's job difficult, it is hard to see where progress has been made since the Trapattoni days.

It should be pointed out as well that ironing out such bumps and hollows is the job he is paid to do.

Some close to the squad have suggested that O'Neill took the defeat by Scotland very badly indeed and seemed overwhelmed by the event.

Allowing for the inevitable garlanding of third party reports with extra foliage and the fact that you would want Ireland's manager to be angry about a defeat like that, it does appear that his reaction was particularly bleak.

But for an Aiden McGeady moment of magic against Georgia and bolt from the blue from John O'Shea against Germany, Ireland would be virtually down and out and the story of O'Neill first year a very different one. This time, there is no Roy Keane circus and the emphasis is firmly on football.

Ireland must beat Poland and O'Neill must find a way to do it which displays none of the hesitancy and mild confusion which seems to be his default setting.

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