O’Neill sees positives in Poznan
‘It was not the most fantastic spectacle but we can improve,’ says Republic of Ireland manager
Republic of Ireland captain Jonathan Walters tussels with Poland’s Adam Marciniak during last night’s friendly international at the Miejski Stadium, Poznan, Poland, last night. Photograph: Inpho
No goals on a chilly night in Poznan but no honour lost either after an evening of honest, uncomplicated endeavour from Martin O’Neill’s Irish team. After the fabulous reaction to the opening night show against Latvia and the champagne element of that victory, maybe the prosaic nature of these 90 minutes did no harm.
With Polish fans applauding the Irish anthem, reality descended upon the few dozen brave visiting fans who made their return to Poznan – unless, of course they never made it home from the Euros – as this match gave a clearer indication of where Ireland stand.
The sides broke about even in what was an archetypal mid-winter game, defined by full-blooded tackles, bodies clattering under high balls and not very much to thrill the crowd after 96 minutes of football. But with nothing much at stake, everyone was relatively satisfied.
“It was not the most fantastic spectacle but we can improve,” Martin O’Neill said shortly before the Irish side caught a wee-hours flight out of Poland.
After the whirlwind week, O’Neill now has weeks in which to reflect and plot and plan and he admitted he has enjoyed the opening phase of the Irish job so much that he will be suffering from “withdrawal symptoms” in the days ahead.
“I am not sure it will be the same for the players,” he sighed. “I might even phone one or two of them. They are probably dreading that.”
There were times too last night when it was evident that the Irish team and management are still in the getting-to-know-you stage of their adventure but the collective spirit was strong. While the medical staff attended to Stephen Ward after half an hour, an impromptu conference was held near the Irish bench, with Roy Keane counselling James McCarthy and O’Neill having a word in Aiden McGeady’s ear.
Afterwards, McGeady and Anthony Stokes both held their hands animatedly as they chatted about how best to get some joy out of the Poland right flank. Ireland were solid in the opening half hour without ever really threatening.
“The pitch was a bit sticky . . . but that was the same for both sides. There weren’t many chances in the game but I thought we showed terrific resilience in the end. We became a bit ragged in the last 10 minutes of the first half. And in the second half, the changes we made, you know, that disrupted our rhythm. But there was loads of positives for me to take out of it and it has been really enjoyable for me. I think the same is true for Roy and Séamus McDonagh: it was a real pleasure.”
Jon Walters responded to his elevation to team captain by putting in a workaholic shift, manning the full back and forward lines and twice halting promising Polish attacks by being in the right place at the right time.
Paul Green thundered into the game from the beginning and didn’t flag for the 90 minutes in what was his best evening in an Irish shirt. Marc Wilson enjoyed himself at centre-half even if he is frighteningly blasé at times. “He has a bit of presence about him and he can also play at left back . . . we had a thought we might push him over there,” O’Neill said.
“But he is pretty comfortable with the ball – sometimes too comfortable. Time will tell. I will get a chance now to watch him at club level and I think he is a very fine footballer.”
Aiden McGeady started the game in a mood of bright mischief in the opening period. Shane Long hustled and competed for every ball but had precious little to work with. The effort and enthusiasm was there but gone was the vibrant imagination of O’Neill’s opening night against Latvia.
It wasn’t that they didn’t want to play; it was just that the Poles gave them nothing like the same time on the ball or the space to exploit. This was sturdy, combative fare from both teams and Ireland stayed organised throughout.
Robert Lewandowski, though, confirmed his status as Poland’s national football treasure, his play filled with bright touches including a deft flick over John O’Shea which forced the Irish man into a blatant handball which earned him a booking and a booing from the Poznan crowd.
Lewandowski earned the full attention of the Irish back line every time he touched the ball but for all the fizz, David Forde was rarely troubled and Lewandowski retired to an ovation after an hour. But the Poles continued to press, with Jakub Blaszczykowski and Waldemar Sobota looking dangerous every time they were given space to attack.
“It was away from home,” O’Neill emphasised afterwards. “It is a good result for us in that sense. There is lots we can improve on. I think the players know that themselves. But against Poland away . . . it was tough going. I think international football, teams aren’t running away with games that much – although I believe France are winning 3-0 tonight. I thought McGeady again, in the final third of the pitch, he has terrific feet and he is a real danger. I know Aiden wants to think he can dribble himself out of any position in the park but in the last third, taking lads on, he is terrific. We have a lot to work with.”
And that was it. A win and a draw, a bunch of phone numbers in his notebooks and much to think about for the Irish manager between now and Christmas. It all goes quiet and now the job starts for real.