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3 winners and losers from Ireland's latest international week

After an indifferent opening, the Boys in Green ultimately earned a deserved point against Austria on Sunday.

The winners

Kevin Long

Ireland: Republic of Ireland vs Uruguay - International Friendly Match Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

During his time as Ireland manager, some fans and pundits have become frustrated with Martin O’Neill’s conservatism and apparent unwillingness to take gambles. Yet perhaps this criticism is a little unfair on the Derry native. In two of Ireland’s biggest games, he has handed competitive debuts to central defenders — firstly, he gave Shane Duffy a chance in the vital Euro 2016 group match against Italy, and yesterday, having only recently been called into the squad for the first time, Kevin Long was thrown in the deep end against Austria.

With experienced players in John O’Shea and Richard Keogh both left on the bench, Long needed a strong performance to vindicate his manager’s decision, and the Cork native duly delivered with an assured display. The 26-year-old remains short of game time at both club and international level, but on the evidence of Sunday’s display, he has the potential to excel for both Burnley and Ireland, after a stop-start, injury-ridden few years of his career.

“Considering this was a big game, I thought he acquitted himself well,” a content O’Neill added afterwards.

“I was confident and was just buzzing to get going,” said Long, whose display on the pitch backed up this sense of optimism.

Jon Walters

Republic of Ireland v Austria - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium Source: Niall Carson

Jon Walters may not be the most talented player to have ever worn an Irish jersey, but what he lacks in pace and technical ability, he more than makes up for in graft and nous. The Stoke man scored a brilliant equaliser to hand Ireland a deserved point yesterday.

But even in the first half, when he was left looking a little isolated up front, the 33-year-old led the line well with little service, winning a couple of free kicks and generally giving the Austrian defence a hard time.

After Sunday’s game, O’Neill paid tribute to his warrior in attack. “He showed immense character,” the Ireland boss said.

“Sometimes he was having to flick things on and hope someone had read it, and we hadn’t done that and the ball was coming back.

“But talking about Jon himself, Jon is not the quickest and yet he’s got a real knowledge of the game and he’s got a great will, a really great will which he showed in the European Championships for us in qualification.

“He was our talisman, a bit like James McClean might be now. Walters is totally invaluable to us and his performance, particularly in the second half, was just immense.”

Daryl Murphy

Republic of Ireland v Austria - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium Source: Brian Lawless

With just one goal in 26 international appearances, Daryl Murphy tends to be ridiculed by certain Irish fans. Yet while the Waterford native has not been particularly prolific in a green shirt, his physicality has been an asset for some time now.

The 34-year-old led the line superbly in some Euro 2016 qualifiers, including the play-off win over Bosnia in Dublin, while he also played an important role in the famous 1-0 victory over Italy last summer.

In this qualifying campaign too, the Newcastle striker has made an impact, heading home the vital equaliser away to Serbia, while also helping to turn the game in Ireland’s favour yesterday, with the Irish striker’s height and physicality proving enormously influential and causing the Austrian defence plenty of problems in the second half.

The losers

Keiren Westwood

Ireland: Republic of Ireland vs Iceland - International Friendly Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

If ever there was a chance to bring Keiren Westwood into the side, Sunday at the Aviva represented the perfect opportunity. Regular number one Darren Randolph had looked ill at ease and was at fault for the goal against Uruguay last week while his rival for the jersey had pulled off an impressive save during the match after coming on in the second half. Moreover, at club level, their form has also starkly contrasted — Randolph was dropped by West Ham after a couple of costly gaffes towards the end of this season, whereas Westwood had another excellent season in the Championship for a Sheffield Wednesday side that were a penalty shootout away from being promoted to the Premier League.

But despite a number of factors playing in Westwood’s favour, O’Neill kept faith in Randolph and was rewarded as the goalkeeper pulled off a fine save in the second half. Afterwards, when quizzed on the issue, O’Neill suggested Randolph’s club form was more or less insignificant, adding that the Bray native would retain the number one spot for his country provided he kept performing for the Boys in Green — something which suggests Westwood is unlikely to get a chance in a competitive match anytime soon.

Wes Hoolahan

Republic of Ireland v Austria - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium Source: Brian Lawless

Aside from awarding a start to Kevin Long, the exclusion of Wes Hoolahan was the most surprising decision when Ireland’s starting XI was confirmed yesterday. The Norwich man started the last game he was fit for and subsequently excelled in the 1-0 victory over Austria, setting up the winning goal with an exquisite through pass.

Following a laboured first half in which Ireland struggled for creativity last week against Uruguay, Glenn Whelan was replaced by Hoolahan at half-time and Jeff Hendrick dropped into a deeper midfield role alongside Harry Arter. It was only then that Ireland’s midfield started to click and they offered genuine threat and creativity in the final third. Consequently, owing to this significant second-half improvement, many people expected the Irish side would face the Austrians with a similar set-up to how they ended against the Uruguayans.

Instead though, O’Neill built the team around Whelan, requiring Arter and Hendrick to play in slightly unnatural positions as a result and sacrificing the Norwich star. The 35-year-old Dubliner, who was recently named the Canaries’ Player of the Season, was belatedly introduced with 20 minutes remaining, but by then Ireland had abandoned any real pretence towards passing the ball, and so Hoolahan’s impact was minimal.

The fact that the former Shels man was omitted for arguably Ireland’s biggest match of the campaign so far even with normal starters like Shane Long and James McCarthy absent does not bode well for the star’s future chances of playing a prominent role at international level.

Jeff Hendrick

Ireland: Republic of Ireland v Austria - FIFA World Cup 2018 Qualifying Round Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Martin O’Neill has played Jeff Hendrick in the number 10 role against Wales, Uruguay and Sunday for the Austria clash now, and each time, the experiment has fallen flat. In all those games, Ireland struggled for creativity and attacking threat.

Hendrick is clearly uncomfortable in the position. Playing with his back to goal while needing to turn and provide defence-splitting passes is not something that comes naturally to the Dubliner.

For the games in which Hendrick starred at the Euros, against Italy and Sweden, he actually played out wide in the former and as part of a three-man midfield supporting Hoolahan during the latter match.

For Burnley, the 25-year-old has generally played as part of a flat two-man midfield, something which Martin O’Neill would be reluctant to do, given that Glenn Whelan lacks the legs to play anywhere other than in his sitting position in front of the back four.

It was no coincidence that in games against Uruguay and Austria yesterday, Hendrick has immediately looked a better player when restored to his more natural area of the field. As an attacking midfielder, he seems lost and plays on the periphery of games. Surely, the time has come to abandon this strategy and play with a more natural number 10 or implement a different system completely.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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