Ken Early: Fire or ice now the big call for O’Neill
Callum O’Dowda’s composure could keep James McClean out in Cardiff
Callum O’Dowda could become a big player for this team in the near future. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
The major intrigue of the week in Irish football was the FAI’s decision to agree a two-year contract extension with Martin O’Neill two games before the end of the qualification campaign, with the outcome still unknown.
This was by no means a universally popular decision, after a poor 2017 to date had seen Ireland win only one out of seven matches while playing some terrible football. The defeat to Serbia last month was the most disappointing performance and result of the year, and afterwards O’Neill had lamented that he had no player with the quality of a 27-year old Robbie Keane, which made it sound as though he had begun to lose faith in the ability of the current players to do the job.
O’Neill had recovered his confidence enough by Thursday this week to say that there were some young players coming through and “much to look forward to,” but if he was going to convince the doubters that there was much to look forward to with him still in charge, he needed a comfortable win against Moldova at the very least.
Thankfully for O’Neill, the first half saw his players deliver their best performance since the win in Vienna last year. Daryl Murphy’s two goals ensured the game was effectively won by half-time.
Murphy’s presence in the starting team was welcome despite his record of one goal in 27 internationals before last night. Ireland have been playing so much long-ball football recently that they might as well play a proper target man as well, and Shane Long usually gets more chances if he has a strike partner to draw the attention of defenders.
As it happened Ireland didn’t play much long ball, but Murphy did score two classically old-school centre-forward’s goals.
The first came after just two minutes, straight out of the Tony Pulis playbook. Stephen Ward flung a long throw into the area, Shane Duffy, who always causes problems at attacking set-pieces, distracted the defence with a leap across the path of the ball, and Murphy was there to batter it in off goalkeeper Cebanu from close range.
If the first goal was basic, the second was beautiful. Hoolahan started it with a glorious diagonal ball from half-way to Ward, sprinting down the left wing. Ward got it under control and lofted a deep cross towards Murphy, who read the flight of the ball superbly and aimed an excellent header back across goal and inside the far post.
Murphy’s presence also helped Long to find space, although he didn’t have such a good night in front of goal. Three times he missed good chances that had been laid on by Callum O’Dowda: the third miss, sidefooted awkwardly wide of an empty net with the goalkeeper out of the picture, was greeted with outbursts of laughter around the ground as well as the usual howls of consternation.
The 27-year old Robbie Keane O’Neill was pining for last month would have scored two or three from Long’s chances on the night. It was a shame for Long as his energetic performance deserved better, but after 71 caps everyone knows to expect hard work and missed chances.
Hoolahan was, as ever, Ireland’s best player, but the most encouraging performance came from Callum O’Dowda, whose first competitive start as part of Ireland’s diamond midfield was no surprise after O’Neill and Keane had praised him during the week. O’Dowda is a player who exudes composure, a quality that has been scarce in recent Irish performances.
He showed that cool head a couple of times in the first half, skipping beyond a defender to cut the ball back for Long’s first miss, and surging through the middle to tee Long up for miss number two. He should have scored in the second half but couldn’t capitalise on excellent approach work from Hoolahan.
It’s probably too soon to anoint O’Dowda the Irish Robben, but he showed enough to suggest he could become a big player for this team in the near future. The immediate question for O’Neill is whether he should keep his place for the match against Wales, with Robbie Brady and James McClean coming back from suspension.
It was surprising to see Hoolahan stay on the field until the 75th minute. The fact that he played so long suggests that O’Neill intends to use him as a second-half substitute in Cardiff, rather than playing him from the start. If so, that frees up one place in the starting team, and Brady is surely a dead cert to start. It’s hard to imagine Murphy not starting the next game after his two goals, so assuming Long stays in the team for his energy and speed on the counter, O’Neill might have to choose between McClean and O’Dowda, fire and ice. At least the decisions still matter going into the last game.