A week of sparring about tickets and eligibility comes to a head in Glasgow tonight
Two teams with many similarities, it’s difficult to pick a winner, so maybe a draw is the best bet
In Brian Kerr’s midfield: Darron Gibson. Photo: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Like so many others, I’ve been waiting with warm anticipation of tonight’s game in Glasgow, the occasion brings back nice memories of two previous visits: my first game as Republic of Ireland manager in February 2003 and our under-16s’ success in the 1998 Uefa Championships. The latter was a real surprise, considering we had to beat Spain, Portugal and Italy along the way, the seniors’ 2-0 win, with goals from Clinton Morrison and Kevin Kilbane, less so.
Remarkably, of the players who will appear tonight, John O’Shea is the only one to have been involved in both those events. He has become the leader of the current squad, after years in the shadow of Richard Dunne and others, and 100 games on, he’s now a hero among Irish fans after his brilliance in Gelsenkirchen.
For tonight’s game, the two teams have so many similarities it’s difficult to separate them and pick a winner. Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan, both of whom enjoyed happy managerial days at this stadium, have come in relatively recently and revitalised squads and fans alike with hope and optimism, both tying down a style and shape to suit the players available to them.
But Strachan is further up the road in his assessment of his players, mainly due to the six competitive games he had in the previous qualifying campaign, his team possessing more certainty in terms of personnel and style. Watching them away to Germany and Poland, it was evident that his players have clarity in their roles and organisation, regardless of the side picked. Their system is flexible too, 4-2-3-1, changing to 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 as the game demands.
Without the injured Aston Villa right-back Alan Hutton, his defence will have just one Premier League player, Andrew Robertson of Hull City, but the rest – David Marshall (Cardiff) in goal, Russell Martin (Norwich), Grant Hanley (Blackburn) and Steve Whittaker (Norwich) – have been fairly solid to date. It’s the weakest part of their team, though, and I’m hoping that the pace and directness of James McClean and Aiden McGeady will give them real problems.
Although the results away to Georgia and Germany were brilliant, neither performance by the starting XI was particularly satisfactory in the opposition half. McGeady was ineffective off the front in Germany and it was only when Jon Walters went up there, with Wes Hoolahan coming on and McGeady moving wide right, that things began to happen.
Having been picked for those games, it would seem likely that Stephen Quinn’s tenacity will see him start again in midfield, but if it’s alongside the inexperienced Jeff Hendrick, in the absence of Whelan and McCarthy, we may struggle for possession against Scott Brown and James Morrison, with Steven Naismith just ahead of them.
Despite his lack of action to date, Darron Gibson, along with Hendrick, could give us a better range and quality of pass, while Walters is capable of playing slightly off the front and lending a hand in midfield. My Irish team to win, then, would be: Forde, Coleman, O’Shea, Keogh, Ward, Gibson, Hendrick, McGeady, Walters, McClean, Long. Bring Robbie on if we’re chasing a goal.
But our defensive four, supported by a hard-working midfield, have been fairly sound so far and their familiarity with Scotland’s front four should give them confidence in their ability to repel any onslaughts. That familiarity, along with the similarity in style, system and club background should ensure a lot of cancelling out around the field.
By far the most decorated players from the two squads are Darren Fletcher and O’Shea from their Manchester United days together. Fletcher’s return after serious illness is heart-warming and he’s likely to appear tonight at some stage, if not from the start. In the midst of all the furore this week surrounding James McCarthy and McGeady and their Scottish background, I couldn’t help but smile thinking Fletcher could have been another one on that list – had he not been playing for a club with a Scottish manager.
I investigated his eligibility for us through his Achill-born mother, but got little encouragement at that time. But just like so many at tonight’s game, Darren, Aiden and James come from two backgrounds historically entwined .
This week’s sparring about eligibility and tickets (I suspect the SFA’s limiting of us to 3,209 has been scuppered by inventive Irish fans) has, as Gordon Strachan described it, had an element of pantomime. Tonight, though, is the serious theatre, and may the best Celt win – with maybe an Englishman scoring the winning goal.
My bet is for a draw – with honour and all family ties maintained.