Euro 2016: Clough Disciples can take us past Group Stage

7 Jun

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So as the Irish team prepares to leave for their magnificent looking Versailles base (Saipan it certainly isn’t) and with new contracts just hours ago having been agreed for Irish boss Martin O’Neill, assistant Roy Keane and other staff members, it should be a fairly happy Easyjet flight that leaves these shores tomorrow.

It’s been a very interesting seven days since Ireland’s final warm-up defeat to Belarus in Turner’s Cross and the squad announcement and apparent fall-out (among some sections of the Press anyhow) of Roy Keane’s perceived disaffection with some of the Irish players’ performances in that Belarus game.

In my opinion, Keane was absolutely on the money, but I would also wager there was calculated method in his comments that had the complete backing of his gaffer. The squad hadn’t been announced and a couple of spots were up for grabs on the flight, yet far too many of the eleven who started (with most if not all unlikely to feature in the starting XI against Sweden in Paris next Monday, barring injuries) against Belarus failed miserably to lay down a marker to O’Neill that they could merit a starting place if the cards fell their way.

For me, the biggest contrast in attitudes and ability on the night were Aiden McGeady and James McClean. In terms of natural ability, McGeady is streets ahead of McClean. In terms of honesty of application and attitude, McClean blows the moody and enigmatic McGeady out of the water. Aiden McGeady rescued a crucial opening qualifier victory in Georgia twenty one months ago with that world class goal (his second on the night) and looked set to finally blossom in the Irish shirt after so many infuriating performances lacking in end product and effectiveness. A move to Everton following a productive enough spell with Spartak Moscow looked set to further McGeady’s cementing of his reputation as a top class player. Sadly, it has all gone pear-shaped for McGeady as injury and loss of form saw him slip out of favour with Martinez at Everton. The fact that a well-meaning move to Premier League chasing Sheffield Wednesday utterly bombed should fill O’neill and Keane and indeed all of us, with complete fear at how low McGeady’s stock has now fallen. His first half performance against Belarus bore that out. He was ineffective, disinterested and completely bereft of any semblance of sharpness. He is lucky to be boarding that plane tomorrow.

McClean on the other hand bounced back from a pre-season slaughtering in the British (and some Irish) media over his God Save the Queen stance in a pre-season friendly for West Brom, followed by the annual November nonsense (Poppygate) by absorbing the  garbage with his usual class and steadfastness and then becoming a regular in the first team at The Hawthorns. He had a fine season (despite a couple of silly red cards) and demonstrated last Tuesday against Belarus that not only did he want to be certain of making the squad, he wanted to show O’Neill that he covets a starting spot in Paris next Monday. This he did by making some  crunching tackles from the off and covering the ground in his usual manner and getting in a quota of crosses. He was everything McGeady wasn’t. McClean however must get his timing right or he will incur referees’ wrath.

It was Keane’s post-match comments however that made the headlines and I really don’t understand the fuss that was made of them, with some speculating already that there might be unrest in the Irish camp as a result! What utter rubbish!
Has it not occurred to anyone that both O’Neill and Keane were managed by one of the greatest managers of all time in Brian Clough? Has it not occurred to those who felt Keane was out of order that these two former pupils of Clough might now be indulging in some

well-rehearsed cajoling and psychology to ensure all twenty three Irish players know what’s expected of them? Has it not occured to anyone that the players might actually agree with Keane (and O’Neill who himself was unimpressed with the Belarus showing)? And if they don’t agree with Keane and were “hurt” or “stung” by the criticism, well maybe they should pack it in and let their wives/girlfriends massage their poor bruised egos.

In my opinion, the timing of this perceived criticism of several players was absolutely spot on, be it personally from Keane, or if it was prompted by O’Neill himself, with Roy the usual “bad cop” trotted out so everybody would be listening.

We travelled to Poland in 2012 without a clue what our management team was thinking or saying due to their pigeon English. We travelled to Poland, despite several players being patently unfit, wrongly assuming all was well and smelling of roses in the camp. We travelled to Poland on a wave of utterly misplaced confidence. O’Neill and Keane are ensuring we don’t repeat that  mistake this year.

So what of our chances in the group? I am cautiously optimistic we can advance through the group. Sweden are workmanlike and honest and have Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic can be and has been shackled before and if Ireland can do a job in containing their big star, we can

definitely gain a point at least from the opener. Three points is not beyond us either given the O’Neill knack in getting into his players’ heads (the Clough factor) and playing above themselves when it matters.

The fitness of Jonny Walters and Robbie Brady is key to our chances in Paris. Walters was our talisman and Player of the Qualifiers. Brady has become key for set piece delivery and eye for a goal (both play-off legs v Bosnia). Deprived of one or both of them could mean the difference between no points and three next Monday. I believe both will make it as this game should determine our duration in France.

Belgium will hugely miss the absence of Kompany, when he is fully fit (if he ever will be again), he is one of the best defenders in world football. Despite the rich talent at Marc Wilmots’ disposal, Kompany’s absence will make a difference to the fate of Belgium. On their day however and depending on how we’ve fared in Paris, this is probably our toughest game of the three and I would take a point now from Bordeaux.

Italy are Italy, despite the retirement of Pirlo and the absence of a centre forward of note to score the goals they need. Despite Italy’s tradition and history, I firmly believe Ireland can win this one and an avoidance of defeat in the other two games should be enough for us to make the last 16.

Make no mistake however, this is still a bloody tough group for Ireland and history has taught us that anything is possible on any given day, be it positive or negative, so my belief we can progress beyond the group stage is peppered with caution.

If everyone is fit (and I mean 100% fit, not Euro 2012 fit), I think the starting XI will be as follows: (4-5-1) – Randolph, Coleman, O’Shea, Keogh, Brady; Walters, Whelan, McCarthy, Hendrick, McClean; Long.

We’re all set, let the games begin and let us hope we see us make it beyond the group stage for this time in a European Championship! GWAN IRELAND!

 

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