O’Neill’s faul to rare we lack­ing qual­ity?

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Em­met Malone Soc­cer correspondent

At least Uefa will have been happy with the way the game in Cardiff went on Thurs­day night. The or­gan­i­sa­tion be­hind the much-de­rided Na­tions League has been anx­ious to big up their new baby up and the man­ner in which Wales beat the Repub­lic of Ire­land must have been just the sort of thing they were hop­ing for to si­lence the scep­tics. Af­ter all, how many sides would have been both­ered to dish a past­ing like that out in a friendly game, glo­ri­fied or not?

Martin O’Neill’s en­thu­si­asm for the new com­pe­ti­tion will not have been helped by the start Ire­land have made. To judge by his com­ments af­ter­wards, the 66-year-old clearly still sees him­self as the right man for this job but the qual­ity of the per­for­mance and the tone of the re­ac­tion to it will pre­sum­ably have alerted him to the fact there are a grow­ing num­ber of ob­servers who re­quire con­vinc­ing.

Three more com­pet­i­tive games against the very sides that have done so much to un­der­mine his stand­ing in re­cent times scarcely seems like the most promis­ing sce­nario. The worst case in this three team group re­ally does look pretty bleak and O’Neill needs to avoid it if the case for the FAI mak­ing a change is not to start look­ing more com­pelling.

Fiercest crit­ics

Ob­vi­ously, there is an is­sue with the play­ers. O’Neill’s op­tions are so poor even his fiercest crit­ics aren’t re­ally claim­ing he picked the wrong team in Cardiff. Matt Do­herty is about the only player with real cause for com­plaint but no­body feels he should re­place Séa­mus Cole­man so start­ing him means play­ing him out of po­si­tion which, at the very least, makes the whole is­sue a good deal less clear cut.

This week’s in­jury list meant op­por­tu­ni­ties for oth­ers but Conor Houri­hane has yet to demon­strate he can make an im­pact at this level while Cal­lum O’Dowda and Cal­lum Robin­son strug­gled to pose the Welsh sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems.

Be­yond that there is re­cur­ring lack of co­he­sive­ness that gives rise to sug­ges­tions the play­ers don’t fully un­der­stand what is re­quired of them – a claim O’Neill an­grily re­jects. Jeff Hen­drick must know by now but this was yet an­other night when the 26-year-old failed to de­liver.

Be­hind him were Ire­land’s first-choice back five. All four de­fend­ers are reg­u­lars for their clubs in the Pre­mier League and with have more than 150 caps be­tween them. This is as good as it gets from an Ir­ish per­spec­tive just now but on Thurs­day it wasn’t nearly good enough.

Cole­man may have emerged with credit but ev­ery one of the oth­ers had a pretty dis­mal night with Stephen Ward and Ciarán Clark, in par­tic­u­lar, given tor­rid times by the Welsh and Dar­ren Ran­dolph beaten twice at his near post. O’Neill de­clined to crit­i­cise in­di­vid­u­als but talked af­ter­wards about watch­ing the game back and iron­ing out “a few of the prob­lems that were fun­da­men­tal”. Re­ally?

“Next month there might be one or two fit­ter lads,” he sug­gested, “I’m hop­ing one or two will be back but if not we will sol­dier on.”

We can only pre­sume the cel­e­brated mo­ti­va­tor’s team talks in­spire a lit­tle more con­fi­dence. They ought to given the money he is on – some ¤2 mil­lion a year with Roy Keane pick­ing up about ¤750,000 for his role as as­sis­tant. Keane’s pre­cise role in alien­at­ing Harry Arter could do with be­ing clar­i­fied but how­ever small O’Neill says it was, it seems like a poor re­turn for his em­ploy­ers. Harry Arter di­vides opin­ion and had cer­tainly not de­liv­ered for Ire­land in the way that might have been hoped but O’Neill is not in much of a po­si­tion to be los­ing play­ers of his type or cal­i­bre.

Sole su­per­star

Wales had not only the game’s sole su­per­star but most of the game’s other best play­ers too. Like Ire­land, they had six sur­viv­ing starters from last Oc­to­ber but O’Neill would surely have liked to have been bring­ing in the likes of Ethan Am­padu or David Brooks, 17 and 21 re­spec­tively. By the end of the night, Ryan Giggs had used six play­ers who were un­der 23, the age of the youngest two play­ers in Ire­land squad.

There is lit­tle prospect of the sit­u­a­tion im­prov­ing sig­nif­i­cantly in the near fu­ture. Only one of Noel King’s cur­rent un­der-21 squad – goal­keeper Kieran O’Hara – is at a Pre­mier League club (Manch­ester United) and he is nowhere near the first team. At the mo­ment he is on loan at Mac­cles­field. Play­ers like Jon Wal­ters, who will not travel to Poland, get to play on into their mid 30s, and we should be grate­ful they do, be­cause no­body is good enough to dis­place them.

The game has changed dra­mat­i­cally over the past 30 years and the FAI was asleep at the youth devel­op­ment wheel for most of that time. Peo­ple could see it com­ing but it far too long for the as­so­ci­a­tion to act. Now that it has, it is play­ing catch up but lacks the money to pro­vide the re­quired sup­port to the clubs it has charged with im­ple­ment­ing the sys­tem it has de­vised.

And yet O’Neill’s job, when it boils down to it, is to make more, much more, of what he has. On his best days, he has ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions but for all his ob­vi­ous con­fi­dence in his own abil­ity, the last two com­pet­i­tive games have been ter­ri­ble. The task is not get­ting any eas­ier, but with Den­mark and Wales com­ing to Dublin next month, he could se­ri­ously do with de­liv­er­ing again.

Martin O’Neill: crit­ics aren’t re­ally claim­ing he picked the wrong team

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