With the injury list piling up for Ireland ahead of Friday’s tie with Wales, a mini crisis faces Martin O’Neill as his squad assemble in Abottstown.
The major concern before the announcement of any ailments to the team was understandably how the Boys in Green would handle the fearsome talents of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen. This team has always come up with answers and there is no doubt that O’Neill will have several ideas in mind even with the dwindling numbers.
Replacing the starters from Vienna will be a challenge but one of the most pressing questions is where the creativity will come from? Wes Hoolahan is ruled out and Harry Arter, a man who plays on the front foot and very productively from a deeper position also misses out. Robbie Brady who is arguably Ireland’s most creative talent is suspended so the responsibility must lie elsewhere.
Jeff Hendrick and James McClean can provide a creative spark but are used in more workman like roles under O’Neill. The latter will be heavily relied upon come Friday for service to the strikers but despite all the Derryman’s quality, he can sometimes become isolated out wide without the support of Hoolahan.
David McGoldrick or in the extreme case Liam Kelly could have slotted in for the Norwich playmaker but both were added to the injury list yesterday. Thankfully one man who is both creative and in form is available, Aiden McGeady.
Traditionally a winger, McGeady was given an opportunity in the ‘number ten’ role in the early stages of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. A player highly rated by O’Neill, McGeady struggled in the position and his game time was somewhat limited for the remainder of the qualifiers. However, of all the players available for Ireland on Friday, McGeady has the ability to hold onto possession and fulfill the void left by Hoolahan.
A much-criticised figure, the Preston man has been damned for poor end product and inconsistent crossing. Unfortunately, what is rarely mentioned by Ireland fans is the amount of Irish goals that McGeady has been involved in throughout the years with either the space he created to draw a man from a run or simply holding onto possession has been a key part of the buildup.
These simple little details can easily be forgotten, a prime example is McGeady’s initiative to put his foot on the ball and drive forward seconds before Robbie Brady’s memorable winner against Italy at Euro 2016. Wes Hoolahan and Brady rightly got the credit but not many players in the Irish team would have shown the same poise McGeady did in the buildup.
The 30-year-old is in the form of his life at Preston and although in the Championship, it is worth noting that Wales’ two regular full backs, Chris Gunter and Neill Taylor both play at that level. It is likely that McGeady will go head to head with one of them. With form comes confidence and like the start of the Euro 2016 campaign, McGeady should be starting to feel like he possesses real quality again.
This confidence should be exploited by Martin O’Neill to throw McGeady into the number ten role. Ireland always look a bigger threat with a man behind the striker rather than two up top. Although it is not McGeady’s natural position his form will have the Welsh worried and the creativity he has demonstrated recently should be put to use in a game that will require real craft from the Irish.
An attacking three of McClean, McGeady and Walters behind Shane Long could be a productive exercise with Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick likely to offer the defensive balance in midfield to restrict the Welsh flair. McGeady stands out in that midfield as the creative outlet and could be the man to link everything together and to cause problems for the Welsh.
The alternative is difficult to pinpoint. Conor Hourihane or Daryl Horgan could provide the edge but it is hard to see O’Neill throwing either of the uncapped duo into a starting berth. However, despite the injury concerns, Ireland should not stand down to the Welsh at home and a central role for McGeady could be the spark that a depleted Ireland need.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena