Limited Republic of Ireland can push Wales minus Gareth Bale
Uefa Nations League Cup B4: Republic of Ireland v Wales (tonight, Dublin, 7.45pm)
IT was one of those heaven sent questions managers love at press conferences.
‘Are you content that you’re getting everything there is to be got out of these players and could anybody have done a better job over the last few years?’
The journalist who asked the question could have been accused of sycophancy, and while it did perhaps massage Martin O’Neill’s managerial ego, the enquiry wasn’t without merit.
As the Republic of Ireland complete their Nations League double-header against Wales in Dublin tonight without a host of regulars, you would be hard pressed to find a coach that could extract more out of the weakened group than O’Neill.
It was easy to be offended by the ugliness of last Saturday night’s scoreless bore draw with Denmark but a point was still gained and, perhaps more importantly, some morale restored after last month’s 4-1 hammering in Cardiff.
Without Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, Jonathan Walters, Stephen Ward, James McCarthy and now Callum O’Dowda (concussion), O’Neill’s is forced to select players who aren’t commanding regular places at club level.
“The players really want to play for their country, most players do, to be fair,” insisted O’Neill.
“Certainly in my time here they’ve shown an incredible willingness to be here, none more so than James McClean.
“You look at James who broke his wrist the day before we played Wales [last month] and he was actually looking for an injection to see if he could play with a broken wrist.
“James, obviously, is sometimes not right in the head but he’s brilliant for us, absolutely brilliant for us and he epitomises everything what this side has been about over the last number of years.”
He added: “We wouldn’t have got where we’ve got… We are technically short; I think everybody in this auditorium would agree that we’re technically short. But we’re not short of heart. We were well beaten last month [by Wales] but the players have given everything they possibly can for the cause.”
Only eight of the current squad are plying their trade in the English Premiership while the vast majority are playing for Championship clubs, many of whom aren’t playing regularly.
U21 player Ronan Curtis, who was called into the senior squad after last Saturday night’s home draw with Denmark, is playing for League One side Portsmouth.
“It’s a massive step to not be playing regularly in Championship football and come in and play against Denmark who were knocked out on penalties by a team that reached the World Cup final [Croatia].
“And I think sometimes we have to take a few of those things into consideration.
“There are a lot of players here who are not playing regularly in the Championship. It’s a tough ask for them to come in overnight and raise it. And, to be fair, for most of the time we’ve done so. The record over the last number of years suggests that it’s certainly not a lack of heart and desire.”
For the first time in a long time, Ireland’s heart and desire were called into question during last month’s 4-1 defeat to Wales, arguably the worst display in O’Neill’s five years in charge.
And while Saturday night’s encounter with Denmark made for a terrible spectacle, at least Ireland’s never-say-die spirit had returned to the green jerseys.
Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey – Ireland’s chief tormentors in Cardiff – miss tonight’s Nations League tie in the Irish capital through injury and family reasons, respectively.
Central midfielder Ethan Ampadu, Chelsea’s rising star and man-of-the-match against Ireland, is also ruled out as is Brentford’s Chris Mepham.
All of which should give the Irish encouragement.
Even though O’Neill’s resources are stretched, tactically, the Irish can do better than they did against the Danes three nights earlier.
Nothing got past Ireland’s three-pronged central defensive unit of Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh and Kevin Long. That, in part, was due to the fact they played so deep which made life difficult for the midfield and attack to function properly.
O’Neill acknowledged a higher defensive line is required against the Welsh tonight.
“I think we can push out, try and get up the field a little bit so that the distances between the centre backs and midfield are not that far, and then further forward it gives us more," said the Derryman.
"It’s a very big pitch at the Aviva. We are maybe shorn of a bit of phenomenal athletic ability in the side so those distances are important and when the danger is cleared, let’s try and get up a little bit as it gives everybody a better chance.
"Sometimes it’s easier said than done. At times we drop back because it might feel there are safety in numbers. It’s something that we should be working on - to get those extra six or seven yards up that can make all the difference, not only to us at the back but also the players in midfield who don’t have the big distances to cover and as a consequence we can get closer to the centre forward.”
For this Irish side, everything is easier said than done. O'Neill's players, though, will have taken great heart from a clean sheet last weekend.
With a higher defensive line and a bit more confidence in their forward play, a share of the spoils could be on the cards.