Two games into the reign of O’Neill/Keane and the shot in the arm to Irish soccer has been like an adrenaline rush following the tedium of Trap’s last days. A positive display against Latvia followed by more of the same in Poland before an element of tiredness set in has given everyone reason for optimism. If only we’d had this six months ago. Here’s ten talking points.
The depth of negative reaction towards Roy Keane’s shock appointment as Ireland assistant took many people by surprise. For those staunchly in the anti-Keane camp for the last 11 years (and not 13 as John Delaney would have us believe), they would have felt very much in the minority in the barstool debates that inevitably broke out whenever Cork’s finest made another outburst either as a manager or in his punditry role with ITV.
So not everyone was enthused by Roy’s involvement. Many, including his once biggest cheerleader Eamon Dunphy, are prepared to back Martin O’Neill’s judgement. Others are just excited by the whole thing. And that’s a commodity that has been in short supply among Irish fans.
The appointment of the duo has sent ripples around the football world and that can only be a good thing.
There’s already been evidence of Keane’s influence on Ireland’s midfield contingent, most noticeably in James McCarthy. Paul Green too, was worthy of his man-of-the match performance in Poland and he earned the plaudits for doing the simple things that Roy Keane became synonymous with at Manchester United; showing for the ball at every opportunity.
One can only imagine how Keane would have reacted had he somehow ended up as part of Giovanni Trapattoni’s staff watching the ghosts that haunted Ireland’s engine room.
Even Glenn Whelan, who bore the brunt of many fans’ frustrations, was getting forward against Latvia and popping up in threatening areas. In the past, he has been vocal about Trapattoni’s stifling instructions to his middle men. We didn’t have a midfield under Trapattoni.
Now Keane has an opportunity to impart his vast wisdom of that position to an Irish squad we’d hope are desperate to learn. Keane’s influence has already seen a limited player like Green more than contribute to a fine performance away from home.
Imagine the wonders that could do for an Irish squad many already accept is not the most talented, to have a player of Keane’s stature on the training ground giving them pointers, and cajoling them from the sideline.
It’s a phrase that’s been bandied about but due to a combination of the ructions caused by Trapattoni, Keane, and O’Neill himself with members of the Irish squad, it means our new management team has inherited what they call ‘baggage’. Noel King began the process of reconciliation by recalling Gibson, Reid and Doyle. Roy Keane and John Delaney have kissed and made up while O’Neill handing the captain’s armband to Jon Walters in Poland points to a line firmly drawing in the sand between Keane and his former Ipswich skipper.
All the right noises have also been made towards Mr. Ireland at Stoke though not surprisingly the Cobhman can’t help muddying the waters again by declaring he has until next September to decide ahead of the Euro qualifiers. It doesn’t really work like that Stephen.
The former Celtic player seems to have come alive following his re-acquaintance with Martin O’Neill. A goal against Latvia combined with positive attacking flair in both of the new manager’s games in charge looks to have energised the Spartak Moscow man, who has been linked with a move away from Russia for quite a while now.
We’ve been here before with McGeady though. Despite his exciting play in Poznan, there were still examples of the winger’s woefully poor end product. Crosses not clearing the first man are unforgivable at international level. Ireland will be involved in some big games in order to reach France in 2016. In the past, in the matches that mattered, McGeady’s defensive contributions have been derisory.
Having said that, the flashes of brilliance and trickery from McGeady have had Martin O’Neill fulsome in his praise of his former star at Parkhead. Their embrace when McGeady left the fray in Poznan was noteworthy. In commentary for Setanta on Tuesday, Paul Dempsey waxed lyrical asking if we would finally see the potential McGeady has been promising for going on nine years now. That’s a long enough time for people to dismiss anyone as over-rated.
If Martin O’Neill can indeed get the best out of the 27-year-old, he might become a key man for the Irish team at last.
Like McGeady, James McClean has happy memories of working under O’Neill. The 24-year-old has since suffered a dip in form at Sunderland and bravely took the decision to drop to the Championship with Wigan. Imagine the boost in confidence he will receive knowing the man who took a leap of faith by handing him his Premier League début in his first game in charge, is now managing his country. McClean was superb against Latvia, harking back to his swashbuckling early days having transferred to the Stadium of Light from Derry City. He’s another player who could become one of O’Neill’s favourites. It became a criticism of O’Neill’s predecessor that he stuck with players who didn’t merit inclusion at the expense of others. If McClean continues in this vein for Ireland, no one will complain. Just give up the bloody tweeting!
Despite the positive displays against Latvia and Poland, where quite unbelievably for an Irish team of recent seasons, we dominated possession for long periods in both games, we are still incapable of making many chances.
O’Neill has come out saying he believes his squad has the firepower to create opportunities but that remains to be seen. Outside of Robbie Keane, our strikers have not been setting the world alight at club level. Shane Long, who many see as the natural successor to Keane, scored against Chelsea for his first goal in 12 games. Jonathan Walters on the other hand was Stoke’s top scorer last season with 11.
Kevin Doyle came on in both Irish games and has found the net three times this season for Wolves after some really poor form. But he’s in League One now. If O’Neill is happy to pick players from that level, Dave Mooney at Leyton Orient has 13 goals already this season.
There’s a lot of time between now and the next friendly with Serbia in March. One would hope our forward players give the manager food for thought between now and then.
It seems so simple now. Get the ball down and try to get forward while keeping possession. It’s the type of football played in just 180 minutes that we could imagine a Lansdowne Road crowd getting fired up for. For much of Trapattoni’s reign, Irish supporters had nothing to shout about. There is very little to get excited about when a ball is thumped from defence and the most we can hope for is a striker winning a 50-50 ball for a knock-down. No momentum on the pitch means none in the stands and Irish fans voted with their feet by abandoning the Green Army.
All the Irish public ask is that the team take the game to their opponents, not sit back and take our beatings. And there have been many in the past 12 months. If these two games are anything to go by, the Landsdowne Roar might actually get an outing when the business of qualifying comes around.
It’s both a sign of the times we live in and an indication of the sustaining power of the RTE panel. The wise men of Montrose -and Richie Sadlier – partook in a discussion after the Kazakhstan game that accused the interim coach of personal abuse while simultaneously labelling the Dubliner as immature, unpleasant and a bully.
Such is the combined influence of the pundits, that the criticism targeted at King by online commenters in the aftermath of that game was ratcheted up to obscene levels. It was the same treatment meted out to Trapattoni and some of the less popular members of the Irish squad but it’s the strength of the vitriol that would cause many to think twice about labelling the Irish as the ‘best fans in the world.’
Meanwhile King returned to his day-job of managing the Irish U21s and oversaw the 5-2 demolition of the Faroe Islands and a hugely creditable away draw in Montenegro, a result that keeps Ireland firmly in the hunt for Euro qualification. Should the young players that Martin O’Neill hopes to discover graduate from the U21s, they will come through the Noel King school of coaching.
League of Ireland
Giovanni Trapattoni put a few noses out of joint by claiming “There is no league in Ireland”. Not surprisingly there was probably something lost in translation. Ireland, in the main, has a part-time league and the emphasis on improving facilities disappeared with the economic crash. However, Martin O’Neill has said all the right things by stating he is looking forward to attending games asking wouldn’t it be great if he could unearth a hidden gem in the domestic game. Plenty of other teams have done so finding the likes of Coleman, Doyle, Long, and Hoolahan here. Noel King called a few league players up to a training squad in a move that was warmly received. What O’Neill has done is sent out all the right noises that will serve as just as much a motivation to players on this side of the Irish Sea.
As the Ireland team were in camp for these two friendlies and the World Cup play-off scores began to filter in, Martin O’Neill spoke of a sense of regret amongst the squad.
This wave of positive energy and excitement with the unveiling of O’Neill and Keane has been tempered with the realisation that the rest of the football world is looking to Brazil next summer. While the World Cup hype reaches fever pitch, we’re trying to look beyond the festival of football in South America to a tournament that’s three years away.
If only we could have tapped into this energy six months ago. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but looking back now, perhaps the FAI should have been braver and sacked Trapattoni despite the personal warmth we all might have had for the man. Ireland are not going to Brazil and not even the quite sensational pairing of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane can quite shake us from that depression.
Perhaps good times lie ahead in France 2016 but right now it reminds us of the Tommy Tiernan joke: “It’s like being out in the pub on a Friday night and your friend says “Jaysus, we’ll have some craic next week.”
Everyone else is having the craic next summer.