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Ken Early: Wes Hoolahan essential to Irish team right now

McClean adds goals to industry of effort to leave Martin O’Neill with decisions to make

Wes Hoolahan in action against Alexandru Gatcan of Moldova in Chisinau. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

On Thursday night against Georgia, James McClean gave us a glimpse of what he was capable of in central attacking positions, with a couple of second-half headers reminiscent of Alan Shearer in his heyday. Last night, McClean saved Ireland from embarrassment with two goals in Moldova.

When the history of this Ireland team is written the chapter on McClean can be called The King of Chisinau.

Until the goalscoring heroics it had been a quiet performance from the King, who had endured another frustrating night of collisions with opponents interspersed with slightly overhit crosses.

But when Jon Walters laid off James McCarthy’s miss-hit shot, McClean found the corner with a quick and subtle finish.

A few minutes later the Moldovan defence was again writhing beneath his iron heel as he arrived in front of goal at the perfect moment to despatch Seamus Coleman’s low cross into the net.

McClean’s goals meant that a week marked by a level of soul-searching unusual even for Irish football ended with the team looking down on their World Cup qualifying rivals from the top of Group D.

The results have therefore been good, even if the performances have been mediocre. The cliche is that only the results matter, and in a narrow way that is true.

But in the long run results tend to track performances, and it is hard for any team to qualify for the World Cup without playing well.

It is no coincidence that the last time Ireland managed to qualify for the World Cup was also the only time in the last 20 years when they went through the group playing consistently good football.

But why did that 2000-02 team play better football than all the Irish teams we’ve seen since? Was it because Mick McCarthy brought a more sophisticated philosophy, a better set of footballing principles, than Brian Kerr or Martin O’Neill?

Second Captains

Or was it because he had Roy Keane running the midfield?

World class

Keane wasn’t the only good player in that team – there was a brilliant young Damien Duff, Robbie Keane when he still had pace, Niall Quinn, Shay Given and so on. But central midfield is the most important position and having a world-class player there can make a huge difference to how good everyone else gets to look.

Without a player in that class, Ireland will always struggle to control matches, no matter how the coach would like to see them play.

Sometimes we have to remember that some of the other teams have good players too, and they aren’t there just to sit back and watch Ireland knock the ball around in style.

Wales’ failure to beat Georgia should remind us that there are no easy games in international football – when you are a team like Ireland or Wales. All it takes is a couple of badly-timed injuries or suspensions to reduce you to rubble. The loss of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen was too much for Wales to cope with; they were unrecognisable from the team that knocked Belgium out of Euro 2016.

Last night, Ireland were also without two of their best players in Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady.

Fortunately, Wes Hoolahan was available to come back into the team, and the quality of his performance suggested that when Hendrick and Brady are available again, O’Neill should think of a way to get all three of them on the pitch together.

Hendrick and Brady are the future but we saw last night that the present is still Hoolahan.

No other Irish player can be relied upon to produce the kind of instant through-ball with which Hoolahan cracked the Moldovan defence after just two minutes.

No other Irish player would have played Hoolahan’s nutmeg pass to set Coleman away for the cross that led to the third goal.

In between Hoolahan had some frustrating moments. He miscontrolled a couple of balls, he was bullied by defenders, he even had an air-shot on the edge of the box – but he remains our best technical player and the instigator of most of our most memorable moves. Like Hendrick and Brady, he is too good to be left out of the team.

Big games

Ireland have played big games with Hendrick, Brady and Hoolahan all in midfield before, notably the 1-0 win against Germany and the opening game of the Euros against Sweden. The difference is that on those occasions James McClean did not start.

It’s difficult to see how O’Neill can leave McClean out now, since he’s delivered consistently solid performances since coming into the team against Italy at the Euros, and has now even started scoring goals.

Someone else will have to make way.

There are also big decisions to be made about the defence for the next game.

Shane Duffy likes to attack the ball, but there is a time and a place for that, and for a man as big and as slow on the turn as Duffy, that time and place is usually when the ball is in his own half.

Against Moldova he strayed into the opposing half, apparently tempted to go for a ball he had no realistic chance of getting, only to be caught on the turn and forced into a humiliating 50-yard chase back after Bugayev, who had the time to measure a finish past Randolph without Duffy ever getting close.

A player can learn a lot in the course of a long, lonely run like that, under the stare of thousands of disdainful pairs of eyes. Duffy is unlikely to make the same mistake again.

But he made some other mistakes as well, including conceding dangerous free kicks with some rough aerial challenges for which he was lucky to avoid cards.

When Ireland go to Austria next month, defensive stability is an absolute priority. Duffy might be a risk O’Neill can’t afford to take.