Paul McGrath: Ireland must shake old habit and win games as favourites

SoccerBy Paul McGrath
Wes Hoolahan will be a key man
Wes Hoolahan will be a key man

Twice in the next few days, Ireland's footballers will try to do something generations of them have always found difficult.

They will try to win an international soccer match as favourites.

Martin O'Neill's team will play Georgia in Dublin tomorrow night and then travel to Moldova for Sunday's tie, with the burden of knowing we have to get six points.

With Serbia, Austria, Wales and ourselves scrapping for every point, the one guaranteed place at the 2018 World Cup at the end of it all may well go to the side that doesn't drop any points to Georgia and Moldova.

And that brings pressures all of its own. Irish footballers - those who came before me, those I played with and those playing now - love to be told that we can't do something.

We've always loved to be told 'you'll never get out of that group', 'you won't beat Germany tonight', 'you won't beat Italy tonight'.

The bigger the challenge the more a footballer in a green shirt puts his chest out and says 'right, we'll see'.

But tell us 'this is a handy win' and nightmares like Liechtenstein, Malta and San Marino loom large in our thoughts.

Martin O'Neill won't want thoughts like that in the minds of the Boys in Green.

He'll be going with the positives: that we had a good summer in France, that we got the qualifying campaign off to a fine start against Serbia, that we are at home and will have a raucous crowd at our backs.

Ireland have enough talent in the squad to get goals and thus put away teams inferior to us.

Yes, we start a new era now without Robbie Keane, but the great man has been a peripheral figure for about a year before his retirement and we managed well without him.

Now it falls to Jon Walters, Shane Long, Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean to come up with the goods.

I'm not worried that some of our key men have not been starting with their clubs, or not been scoring prolifically.

With the exception of that golden time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a bunch of us were lucky to be at England's elite sides, that's always the way it has been with Ireland.

We've always needed to be greater than the sum of our parts and so it will be from now on.

Lads like Robbie and Wes are well capable of opening up what has often been a stubborn and resilient Georgian defence.

We had trouble beating them in Dublin 13 months ago, when only a fine bit of work from Jeff Hendrick led to Walters' goal.

However, there's a confidence about this Irish team that I like now.

They look like a group of lads that have been galvanised and know they can do good things.

In fact, I'm convinced we'd have done greater things at the Euros had the draw for the last 16 not immediately paired us with the eventual beaten finalists, who just happened to be the host nation.

I'm glad Martin signed his contract in the last couple of weeks - at least it meant we didn't have to ensure another round of speculation about the manager's future in the wake of the Sam Allardyce fiasco.

But it'll make no difference to the players' performance on Thursday.

They've been switched on to what Martin and Roy Keane have been telling them for a long time now and it will be business as usual for this get together.

For me, Martin was never going to leave Ireland.

If you look back at his track record, Martin has left every job on the best of terms.

The only exception was when he left Aston Villa six days before the 2010/11 Premier League season began, when the chairman would not back Martin by buying the players he wanted.

Villa had finished sixth in the top flight in each of the three previous Premier League seasons - gaining more points than in the previous campaign each time. 

Look at where Aston Villa are now. Whose judgement has been proved correct in the seasons since?

Ireland now enjoy the benefit of having a manager who has settled into international life and who is doing so well that he is very comfortable in his job.

As well as a settled manager, Ireland's football fortunes are benefiting from a settled management group and a settled team.

There are a number of good young players bubbling under.

However, as the boss says, his job is to qualify Ireland for tournaments, not to act as a football creche.

Those youngsters will get through to the Irish senior set-up eventually, but Martin O'Neill's only task is to get his team to Moscow, St Petersburg, Sochi and elsewhere in the summer of 2018.

Bagging six points between tomorrow and Sunday would go an awful long way to bringing such a wonderful World Cup summer into focus.