OpinionPaul McGrath

O'Neill faces big calls to set up home leg

Paul McGrathBy Paul McGrath
Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill

It was one of the few times in my football life that I’ve ever wanted my team to be drawn at home first in a two-leg tie.

And so, of course, Ireland were drawn away first to Bosnia in next month’s Euro 2016 play-off.

Why did I want to change the habit of a lifetime?

Because, without the suspended leadership and experience of John O’Shea and Jon Walters for the first leg, it would have been easier to cope with their loss at home.

Add in the fact that Shane Long is doubtful because of injury and I just feel that Martin O’Neill might have been happier playing first in a rocking Aviva Stadium.

The new ground found a liking for big football nights during the Germany game and Irish football fans would have risen behind the team.

Then he could call the two players back for a match that will be tense and  tricky, even though the Bosnian home ground only hosts 16,000 people.

At the end of my time in football, Yugoslavia was beginning to break up, but the players from the region I encountered always brought two qualities to matches, whether for club and country: they were always physically strong and technically excellent.

Those are the qualities I expect Bosnia to bring to the two ties.

However, their failure to get into the first two at the expense of Belgium and Wales does not suggest a team of world-beaters that should have us quaking in our boots. 

Whatever happens, O’Neill has to play the hand he is dealt on Friday fortnight and that means going to Zenica short of O’Shea and Walters and with Long minus game time – at best.

He will hope that the tie is very much alive for a great night in Dublin on Monday, November 16.

Because of the changes he will have to make, there is no doubt that James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan will man the central midfield for Ireland in the away tie.

No way would the manager consider dropping Whelan, even though most Irish supporters want him to do it and place his trust in McCarthy as the leader in that area of the pitch.

The Everton man was excellent against Germany. Indeed, it was his best-ever game in an Irish shirt.

Many people put that down to the fact Whelan wasn’t playing and that the pair weren’t literally bumping into each other as they tried to do the same job of protecting Ireland’s back four.

It’s an issue that may have to be resolved if Ireland qualify for the Finals, but it just doesn’t arise right now for O’Neill.

It’s a pity also for the player I love watching most for Ireland now, Wes Hoolahan (below). Wes is a joy to watch when he gets to weaving a dangerous pattern in front of the opposition goal, and against Germany I never saw him shirk his defensive duties.

I’m not one of these people who believe he is a ‘luxury’ player who can only be used at home when the visitors have it in their mind to sit in for long spells of the match.

With a doubt about Long and definitely no Walters, there must be a chance Wes could fill the playmaker role in the away leg behind just one striker. It’s worth thinking about, and at least Martin has plenty of time to plot his strategy.