Pressure of work along with an upcoming trip to Italy for a friend's wedding meant that a trip to Tbilisi for Martin O'Neill's first competitive game in charge had to be sacrificed so I had to settle with meeting a few friends to watch the All Ireland Hurling final followed immediately afterwards by the match. Having been glad to see the team return to winning ways at Lansdowne against Oman the previous Wednesday in what was admittedly a game played at a training pace, I was very curious to see what 11 O'Neill would put out in what was a potential banana skin in what is probably the hardest qualifying group for Euro 2016. The excitement of the Hurling was a nice precursor to what I'd consider the main event of the day but the surprise I got when I checked my phone during half time of the final and saw the selected team definitely took my attention away from Croke Park as I tried to get my head around how the team would line up.
I've previously said that O'Neill's style would be a slight evolution from the style favoured by Trap rather than a massive sea change and the selected team certainly backed that up with players that have been labelled as Trap favourites such as Ward, Whelan and Walters all present and correct and a continuation of what has always been a failed experiment with Robbie Keane cast in the lone striker role. My biggest surprise was to see Wes Hoolahan on the bench with Stephen Quinn given the nod in midfield for his first competitive start. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? The other main talking point was the retention of David Forde as the number one keeper following the return of Shay Given to the fold. I was glad to see that the nonsense written in parts of the media that Given was insisting on being guaranteed a game turned out to the just that. Forde has never let Ireland down since claiming the shirt and while I've no issue with Given coming back, you can't give guarantees like that in football and it would have sent out a very bad message. I never felt that O'Neill was the type of manager to operate in that way and was happy to see that feeling borne out.
I've always quite liked Stephen Quinn as a player. I'd seen his brother Alan get a number of caps during the Brian Kerr era but Stephen had always looked the better player from what I'd seen of both of them so his ascension into the squad was possibly a bit belated. That said, it was still surprising to see him lining out in midfield as the game kicked off ahead of Hoolahan who seems to have been consistently overlooked in important games by a number of managers at this stage both at club and international level.and who has now become the RTE panel's (Eamon Dunphy in particular) latest cause celebre.
So onto the game itself, and as it took those of us watching a few minutes to adjust to the pace of the game after the breathless helter skelter finale that Kilkenny and Tipperary had served up this was mirrored on the pitch as Ireland started a bit slowly bar a lively first minute but by around the 15 minute mark had begun to dominate possession albeit without much of a cutting edge. However, as often happens, when the goal came it was from old style route one despite the fact that our best spell of possession had just preceded it!
A bit of scrappy play in the Irish defence had ended with a goal kick and Forde duly pumped it long. When it landed on Walters' head he flicked it on towards Keane who dummied it leaving James McCarthy to run onto it. McCarthy then looked up and saw Aiden McGeady who had drifted in form the left and played a perfectly weighted ball to allow McGeady to bend his run back to the left to create an angle on the keeper from where he finished beautifully! 1-0 Ireland and it was probably deserved at that stage.
Unfortunately, old habits seem to die hard and despite having gained the initiative and looking quite comfortable since the goal our lead was wiped out within 10 minutes. There seemed to be little danger when a long ball came forward to the Georgian midfielder Okriashvili but both Ward and O'Shea stood off him giving him time to turn. Despite the space allowed, I doubt that as he got his shot off even he could believe the trajectory of it as it swerved and dipped at the last minute dropping under the bar and left Forde with no chance. The dip on the shot was so severe that I initially assumed the ball must have deflected off someone on it's way. However, replays clearly show that it was just a once in a lifetime shot and, to give credit where it's due, was a stunning goal. I've seen some questions asked of Forde regarding the goal but it was the sort of shot that I couldn't have seen any keeper saving. Conceding like that definitely seemed to hit the belief of the Irish players and the remaining 7 minutes to half time was our worst spell of the game and the break came at the right time for us.
The second half started similarly enough to how the first finished but as the game developed we gradually regained a foothold, possibly helped by the slow tempo in general which may have been a result of the evening heat. For me, bringing on the likes of Hoolahan with around 30 minutes to go would have been the decision to make but it was 15 minutes later before Robbie Brady and Shane Long were introduced for Quinn and Keane. However, this didn't seem to spark us into life and although we were dominating possession again as Georgia seemed to the settling for a point, our final ball was lacking again and bar a McGeady effort just before the substitutions where he turned and cracked a shot just over the bar we weren't really creating anything of note.
McGeady at this stage seemed to have taken a more central position which I'll elaborate on later and it was from this position that he individually turned what looked like 2 points dropped into an away win which could prove vital come the end of the campaign. Seamus Coleman's distribution had been pretty poor by his standards but as the game reached the last minute he was at least still getting forward although there appeared to be little danger as he played the ball into McGeady who had his back to goal. What happened next was as skillful a piece of play as I've seen from anyone in an Ireland shirt in all the years I've been watching us. Taking one touch to control the ball, his second touch was a perfectly executed Cruyff turn to take the ball away from the defender which was immediately followed by a further flick to gain an extra yard and finally he wrapped his left foot around the ball and hit a prefect shot to bury it past the keeper! 2-1 Ireland and you could see the belief drain from the Georgians meaning we were able to close out the game easily throughout stoppage time and bank the 3 points.
It was undoubtedly McGeady's most telling contribution in his 70 caps and was great to see. He's often been a frustrating player in Ireland's colours as it's been clear since he first came on the scene that he has loads of ability but his end product from out wide had often been lacking which crosses and indeed corners regularly hitting the first man and he's also suffered from being double marked on occasion. I've thought for a while that he could potentially do a job in the number 10 position in the hole behind the main striker and both his goals came from that general area. If the manager doesn't trust Hoolahan to do that job in tight games then it could be worth considering McGeady for that role in the future. He seems to be growing into things at Everton since his move and it's safe to say had Messi or Ronaldo scored a goal like that this week it would still be on a loop on Sky Sports News, it really was that good.
Another thing to take from the game is that we really can't afford to play Keane as the lone man up front. I've always been huge fan of Robbie but even at his peak he was never that effective playing that role. He;s still capable of playing as part of a two with the likes of Long up front or even with a playmaker like Hoolahan (or McGeady?) playing balls through but despite the fact that he is still the only natural finisher in the squad we just don't create the chances for him to finish when we're set up like we were on Sunday. We need to come up with another plan for games like that because it doesn't work as it is.
So overall the 2nd goal puts a completely different perspective on things with a home game to Gibraltar to come before I get back on the away trip bandwagon for the Germany game in October. 6 points on the board at that stage should be a given and although Scotland's performance against them was a bit worrying they've struggled in Georgia before and there's always the chance that they or Poland could drop points there. The result and in some ways the performance was reminiscent of the start of the 3 Trap campaigns where we picked up maximum points away to Georgia (albeit in the neutral venue of Mainz), away to Armenia and finally with that get out of jail performance in Kazakhstan which Sunday was definitely an improvement on. The second place finish of the first two campaigns would give us automatic qualification this time around so fingers crossed!!