There is a touch of the graduation ceremony about these last two internationals of the year for Michael O’Neill and his young protégés. He has never wavered from using this complete calendar year as a form of international work experience for a lot of his players prior to letting them loose in the badlands of the Euro ‘20 qualifiers next month. By and large, they seem to be getting through the course not too badly even if the class as a whole may possibly merit the present ‘Could do better’ report.
The team head south to Dublin which to some onlookers might be regarded as a good time to play the Republic as they are having a few struggles themselves. However, this is a derby and they really do not want to lose to their northern neighbours. Or as any football interviewee will tell you, if you are standing by an open window you could get hit by some form coming through it. I really am dying to hear somebody come up with a different cliche for the possible outcome of a derby. Enough of that!
The Ballymena O’Neill version has a fairly large squad to choose from and this is integral communication to players that they’re part of his plans. However, the manager not only is in a position to but really wants players to earn their shirts. Basically, jerseys will not be given out cheaply. It is very likely that the goalkeeper and fullback positions will remain as they need every opportunity to play together. Most of the goals conceded recently have been due to youthful falls off the harsh angle of the international learning curve. No matter, that’s what these games are for though Peacock – Farrell’s weekend goalkeeping might have been better against West Brom. I would like to see Sunderland’s Tom Flanagan get another run out at centre – back and I wouldn’t be surprised either to see Big G block out the light at some point either.
The midfield will have a strange look about it insofar as long-term resident Ollie Norwood misses the trip due to suspension. It’s like the school caretaker being absent. O’Neill places huge emphasis on seeing who manages the intensity of doubleheaders and rightly so as all qualifiers next year in a shortened qualifying window will be condensed rather than spread out. This asks physical questions of some of those players who have been missing out club wise recently – especially Davis and Saville in midfield. There is a huge range of options out wide for Northern Ireland but I would really like to see Whyte and Dallas ripping up the flanks.
Let the return of Kyle Lafferty be viewed on nothing less than on a football basis. As always Michael O’Neill managed to get the main point through in his surmising of the miscreant’s return by stating that the green number ten shirt needs to be scoring goals again. He is capable, has the tools and needs to cut to the goalscoring chase. Despite the effort he goes to have you believe otherwise, I am firmly of the belief he likes playing for Northern Ireland. An away game against the Republic and a home game against Austria is just the ticket.
Recently O’Neill has played games with one up front and then substituted the system to have two playing towards the end of the game. Liam Boyce had a stormer in Sarajevo on his own, but apart from him a lot of the forwards have not had a lot of club game time recently so there is a lot of ‘forward planning’ to do which should be enough to ban me from this site for poor puns. There is a range of styles available to the manager up front even with Washington and Grigg missing and a mix and match could be well worth trying again – we haven’t seen it for a while.
So as we come to the end of all these matches we hope and trust that the team for next March is starting to formulate in the manager’s mind. One or two players need to recognise that this could be their last chance to get on board as there is not much time for experimentation in 2019. George Saville, impressed beyond belief by the fans in Bosnia wants to get a result for them and a match in Dublin and a final home game against Austria gives the team both emotional and footballing motivation. Both games thus are far from dead rubbers. I see both games probably ending up as draws. Clearly, the Northern Ireland team have excelled in woodwork class and if they can stop hitting the woodwork and start putting those chances away the year of study will be well worthwhile.