Keane’s Staying! Now folks, can we focus on the players again?

2 Jun

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Never second guess Roy Keane. You’d think that of all people, the press corp would’ve learned that. Terms like “past the post” and “done deal” were bandied about with confidence over the weekend regarding Celtic’s talks with Roy Keane over Celtic’s managerial vacancy. Despite Celtic’s Chairman Peter Lawwell insisting Keane was merely one of a number of candidates, all the smart (doesn’t seem so smart now) money was on Keane leaving his Assistant Manager’s job with the Irish team and shortly going through estate agents’ brochures to choose a Scottish house to live in.

Well as we know, earlier today Keane decided to remain on in his role as Ireland’s Assistant Manager. Whether he “turned down” Celtic is another matter and quite frankly irrelevant now. By the sounds of the Irish fans at the end of the game with Italy on Saturday, when they chanted his name, the majority I would guess are happy with his decision. I’m sure Martin O’Neill and John Delaney are delighted with his decision and finally, I’d be pretty certain the Irish players are delighted he’s staying.

Ah yes, the Irish players, remember them? There was a key Euro 2016 warm-up game for them in London on Saturday against World Cup-bound Italy. All the pre-match talk was of Keane and Celtic. All the post-match talk was of Keane and Celtic. In between those talks, O’Neill’s Ireland got a more than creditable 0-0 draw with the Italians. OK so it was a fourth game without a win following the opening 3-0 win over Latvia last November, but without doubt, the manner and style of the draw with Italy was in my opinion the most impressive and eye-catching performance in the five matches to date under O’Neill’s tenure.

Italy named their 23 man squad today, so Saturday’s game was more than a friendly for those players on the cut-line of Manager Cesare Prandelli’s thoughts and he named his team with this in mind. The young Italians started very impressively and had Ireland on the rack in the opening 15-20 minutes, with Ireland’s centre midfield pairing of Jeff Hendrick and David Meyler struggling initially with the Italian fluidity and movement. Things changed however, possibly due to the very unfortunate leg fracture to Italy’s Montelivo in an innocent collision of legs with Ireland’s Alex Pearce and also possibly due to the two Irish rookies getting to grips with things overall. Both Hendrick and Meyler showed admirable composure on the ball and bite in the tackle to gradually drive Ireland forward, thus enabling wide men, Aiden McGeady and Anthony Pilkington to threaten the Italian defence on several occasions in the first half.

It was from one such drive from Hendrick that led to a free kick that forced Sirigu to save Pilkington’s resulting effort and Pilkington showed real confidence and talent after Hendrick again and Hoolahan combined initially, with Pilkington most unfortunate to see his shot blocked. Meyler showed he can get forward also with a left footed drive that again forced a save from Sirigu and a really excellent Irish move saw McGeady get around the Italian defender from which Long really should’ve scored with the resulting header instead of allowing the by now very busy Sirigu to get across his goal-line and save.

In the second half, Ireland dominated the early exchanges and played with plenty of poise and confidence with barely a long or hopeful ball in sight. Hoolahan twice set up Long, with Long just failing to find McGeady the first time, while the second time forcing another save from Sirigu. Hoolahan, apart from his creativity again showed what a nonsense it had been that Trapattoni claimed Hoolahan physically lacked what Trapattoni felt was required at this level. Hoolahan will surely be one of the first names on the teamsheet in the opening qualifier in September given how he has performed for O’Neill thus far.

Italy regrouped and had their own period of dominance again but apart from a rightly disallowed Italian goal, David Forde was relatively untroubled as the Irish defence, superbly marshalled by John O’Shea coped and remained resolute, disciplined and organized. Ireland finished strongly, substitutes James McClean, Simon Cox and Stephen Quinn were all involved with the latter crashing a 10 yard drive off the underside of the Italian crossbar, with Quinn setting up McGeady for the rebound who forced yet another save from Sirigu. That was the Irish winning moment one felt but the game finished in a hugely enjoyable and energetic 0-0 draw.

While Brian Kerr in the Setanta studio was pleased, he advised us to not get carried away by the result or performance. Martin O’Neill however was understandably beaming and delighted with the efforts of everyone who played on the night (the match stats read 17 goal attempts to 8 in Ireland’s favour) and it probably gave him his best overall view of what he now has at his disposal, given that stalwarts such as Richard Dunne, Robbie Keane and James McCarthy were absent.

So five games into O’Neill’s reign and it’s a win, two draws and two defeats so far. Those statistics could very easily be three wins rather than one and overall, I think we can see the O’Neill philosophy on the game emerging with this group, slowly shedding the strait-jacketed system that Trapattoni imposed.

The fact that there have been few, if any, withdrawals for the two recent matches and the two games in the States against Costa Rica and Portugal to come seems to indicate that everyone wants to be in the frame for starting positions in September’s Euro 2016 qualifiers. Markers were laid down by otherwise fringe players such as Hendrick, Meyler and Pilkington to O’Neill that they will not let the team down if called upon. Regulars of the last couple of years such as McClean, Ward and Wilson know they have to earn their place in the team and while it’s expected that Richard Dunne will return to partner John O’Shea, others will know they’ll get their chance sooner rather than later.

O’Neill will however be concerned that Robbie Keane’s absence in the last couple of games has been very much felt in terms of Ireland not taking their chances. It was apparent in the defeats to Serbia and Turkey in Dublin and again apparent in the Italy draw. While it’s hugely commendable that Ireland are creating far more chances than that of the Trapattoni era, we can’t rely on Robbie Keane forever and for all Shane Long’s wonderful honesty, strength and aerial attributes, it’s a worry that he misses a far greater proportion of chances than he scores. We may pray we get another full campaign out of Robbie Keane to turn draws into wins at home, or defeats into draws away.

Overall however, the short-term future looks most encouraging and the manner in which Ireland are playing is a lot easier on the eye. The fact that Wes Hoolahan has always been a notable asset to the team so far points to the way O’Neill sees the path this team is taking. It is of huge importance that Hoolahan’s club situation is an improvement on last season. He needs to play, all the time.

Saturday’s performance will hopefully continue into the Stateside games with a win over Costa Rica and hopefully another good outing against surely a formidable Portugal. Robbie Keane will be back for those, Roy Keane is staying on for those. Both situations are welcome and we can now close the chapter on Roy’s situation for the forseeable future and let the players now get on with it.

Phelim Warren
@freewheeler12

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