Friday, 30 September 2016

Fired Man Sam

The one question that has leapt to my mind over the last week is "How much money is enough?".  The English game has long been characterised by greed, especially in the last 24 years since the FA backed the Premier League in it's breakaway from the traditional Football League pyramid. And while stories of clandestine meetings involving managers in motorway service stations where brown envelopes changed hands were commonplace up to 20 or 30 years ago, this was in an era when salaries were a miniscule fraction of the vast amounts of money that those involved in the game are paid today and a blind eye was generally turned to incomes being supplemented in that manner.  So, what possessed a man being paid £3m a year on an initial two year contract (with a possible option of two more) plus bonuses, to risk everything for an admittedly easy extra £400k?  And what does it say about his judgement? 

Sam Allardyce has always been a manager cut from old school cloth. Having been a player in the 70's and 80's, he would have cut his teeth and learned the ins and outs of the game in that period where wages were measured in hundreds of pounds a week rather than hundreds of thousands and where, as a result, the backhander and bung culture was rife.  Although he played a number of seasons in the top division, he was generally a journeyman throughout his career and has privately lamented that some of the decisions he made relating to his moves to different clubs during his career were made for financial rather than footballing reasons.  That clearly indicates that money has always been a significant motivating factor in his professional life.  Following a season cutting his managerial teeth with Limerick in the League of Ireland in 1991/92, his first experience of management in England was on a caretaker basis at Preston in Division 2, coincidentally in the same year that the Premier League was founded and the big money started flowing in from Sky TV.  After a number of successful years in the lower leagues with Blackpool, Notts County and Bolton, he finally reached the promised land of the Premier League in 2001 when he led Bolton to promotion right when the pot of money sloshing around the top flight of English football was getting bigger and bigger.  This new top flight was unrecognisable from the league he had been part of as a player and following the huge 1995 bung scandal that had cost Arsenal manager George Graham his job (where he was found to have received £425k from an agent representing 2 Norwegian players he signed), the behaviour of managers was expected to have changed as well.

Over the course of the next decade, Allardyce's career as a top flight manager turned out to be significantly more sucessful than his career as a player had been.  After consolidating Bolton's place in the league for the first couple of seasons, some astute signings saw them regularly compete in the top half of the table and even qualify for European competition on a number of occasions. Having just missed out on what he described as his dream job as England manager in 2006, subsequent spells in charge of Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham and Sunderland ensured he was never out of work for long and with the increases in the money coming into the English game showing no signs of abating, it's fair to assume that by the time he was once again linked with the England job this summer he was already a very wealthy man.  But he'd never been able to rid himself of the whiff of scandal that had attached itself to him during that period and which may have cost him his chance to manage England when he'd first looked for the job.

Undercover: Football's Dirty Secrets was a Panorama investigation in 2006 during which allegations of improper behaviour were laid at the feet of a number of people involved in the game including then Portsmouth manager and first team coach, Harry Redknapp and Kevin Bond and Chelsea youth director, Frank Arnesen,  However, the most serious allegations related to Sam Allardyce and his son Craig who was working as a football agent at the time.  The programme showed two pieces of footage, filmed secretly, of two agents saying that they had paid sums connected to transfers to Allardyce via his son and alleged that three payments from other agents relating to specific transfers had been made to Craig Allardyce, including some when he had been contractually banned from doing any deals involving Bolton.  As a result, Craig Allardyce quit the football agency business in summer 2006 and in interviews since admitted that his work in that field may have cost his father the chance of becoming England manager at that time.   Sam Allardyce himself denied any wrong doing, stating at the time that, "As a father it is painful to watch your son talk tall and exaggerate his influence for financial gain" and that he would be putting the matter in the hands of his lawyers who advised that he had a very strong case against the BBC. However, ten years later, no legal action in relation to the case has been filed and the allegations remain legally unchallenged.

Allardyce isn't the first manager to have allegations of corruption laid at his feet and nor was he the first to remain in gainful employment following such allegations. Indeed, even those who had been found guilty by the FA of corruption, such as the aforementioned George Graham, had found it easy to get back into management after having served his year long ban.  For the majority of clubs, there has been an attitude of the ends justifying the means and clubs of the stature of Leeds United and Tottenham were both happy to employ someone who was a proven results getter such as Graham.  So, although he had left Bolton not long after failing in his first attempt to get the England job, there were no shortage of job offers over the next ten years,  And while he may not have won any major trophies, he had done enough at the clubs he had managed in that decade to come back into the frame when the England job once again came up for grabs following their abysmal exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland.  However, given the desire of the English FA for their managers to be whiter than white in light of previous managerial scandals and the ongoing corruption scandals at UEFA and FIFA level, there were still some eyebrows raised when Allardyce was finally given the role in July of this year.  But, considering that this was the one job he had described as his "dream job" throughout his career, surely he could have been expected to keep his nose clean?

The reason generally given as to why the England job pays so well is that the amount being earned should be enough for the manager to solely concentrate on the job in hand rather than hoping to pick up any other earners for outside work.  And Big Sam was certainly making the right noises when his appointment was confirmed stating "I am extremely honoured to be appointed England manager, especially as it is no secret that this is the role I have always wanted. For me, it is absolutely the best job in English football, I will do everything I can do to help England do well and give our nation the success our fans deserve".  He started to deliver that success on the pitch with an admittedly patchy 1-0 win away to Slovakia in his first game and all seemed well with 2 games coming up next week.  What wasn't known was that, before he had even picked his squad for his first game, his agent had already set up a meeting with two "businessmen" to discuss a keynote speaking deal at four conferences in the Far East at £100k a pop.  Those businessmen, who were in fact undercover reporters, were purporting to represent a firm that was was trying to gain a slice of the huge sums of money moving around in English football.

Third party ownership of players refers to a situation where, rather than the club owning the full rights to a player, a third party company (normally run by an agent) holds onto a percentage of the players rights and is entitled to that percentage of any transfer fee if the player is subsequently sold to another club. Ironically, it was at a club that Allardyce would later manage, West Ham, that the issue of third party ownership of players first arose in English football.  In August 2006, much to everyone's surprise, West Ham had confirmed the purchase of two of the rising stars of South American football, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. Over the course of that season, during which they were embroiled in a relegation battle, it came to light that both players' economic rights were owned by a number of companies run by their agent, Kia Joorabchian.  While such deals were commonplace in South America and the practice was not yet banned in England, it was deemed to be unfair and West Ham were subsequently fined a record £5.5m due to the irregularities discovered in the players contracts.  However, many would argue that this was a small price to pay given that Tevez's goals were the main reason that West Ham stayed up as Sheffield United were relegated. Indeed, it was a Tevez goal on the final day of the season that gave them a 1-0 victory over Manchester United which meant they finished 3 points ahead of the Sheffield club.  Given that one season in the Permier League at that time was worth a minimum of £60m, you can see why that £5.5m fine and the undisclosed amount that a case brought by Sheffield United was settled for seemed like a good deal for West Ham.  As a result of this, third party ownership was banned in England in 2008 and FIFA finally followed suit with a worldwide ban in 2015. But that hasn't stopped any number of unscrupulous people trying to get their slice of the pie by bending the rules and it was his admission on tape that there are ways and means around the ban (that his employers have in place) that probably sealed Allardyce's downfall.

Looking at the various videos, you could argue that had it just been any of the individual issues raised, he may have survived in his role. After all, while criticising the previous management team and mocking his predecessor, Roy Hodgson's speech impediment seems boorish and arrogant, there's nothing illegal about it. And while it's embarrassing to be caught on camera in England calling a member of the Royal family a "naughty boy" and giving out about another one not doing enough in his ambassadorial role with the FA, again he could have apologised and it would have been forgotten about fairly quickly.  Even his criticism of the player's psychology during major tournaments could have been talked around.  But although he at least had the cop on to admonish his agent when under the counter payments to managers was raised, the cumulative effect of all the above, along with his admission that there are ways around his employer's rules on third party ownership while meeting people he'd never met before brought his judgement into such question that his departure was inevitable.

Only he can answer why he thought that risking his dream job for the sake of a quick buck was worth doing. He's not an unintelligent man and, despite what I've always considered an unfair reputation as a long ball manager, was an early embracer of sports science and analysis in his management. Player's who have worked under him at both youth and senior level have spoken glowingly about the influence he had on then.  That said, some have also spoken about pressure being applied to them to sign with agents preferred by him.  He's since come out and said he was doing a favour for a friend and that entrapment has won this time out but there's no doubt to me that the greed prevalant in the game today was the main motivation here. In fact, even his agent had advised against going to the second meeting with the undercover journalists after becoming suspicious but Big Sam obviously knew better and attended regardless. The excuse that he came from an era where the backhander culture was rampant doesn't hold water these days either given the huge salary that he was on. Unfortunately, the "Greed is Good" ethos is now so ingrained in the game that it's impossible to see where it ends.  And it was that greed which ultimately made a relatively clever manager behave in such a stupid manner. With more and more money flowing in, each scandal that breaks just seems to move the game further and further away from it's traditional support base.


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Murphy's Law

The most surprising thing for me watching the RTE coverage of last night's match was not how the game developed but the disbelief and outrage shown by Eamon Dunphy in his post game analysis, and then his admission, after an admonishment from Liam Brady, that he had learnt a lot. For this was a typical Irish performance with some of the good and all of the bad elements that have become a hallmark of this team since before Martin O'Neill's time.  Good incisive start and goal?  Check.  Lose our way after scoring and allow the opposition to start dictating?  Check.  Bang long balls forward, cede possession and ride our luck before eventually conceding at least one?  Check.  Regroup and start creating chances when we go behind?  Check.  Equalise and then revert to defensive type?  Check.  And while I'd hoped that our forward momentum post Euros could be sustained in Serbia, none of what transpired surprised me last night.  This is often how we play and considering he's paid to watch us, you have to ask if he ever pays attention.

On the plus side, I'd have taken a draw before kick off and there's no doubt that a point away to Serbia in horrendous conditions may well prove to be vital by the end of the campaign.  Again, the side proved that they're very difficult to beat and although we rode our luck on occasion, we shouldn't forget that the Serbian penalty was clearly a dive.  Of course the question is, would we have pushed on looking for a second goal had the score remained at one each or would we have continued to hang on for the one-all draw? And that's where the frustration comes from because we have shown under O'Neill that we can play reasonable, albeit direct, football when we try to but it seems that doing it when we're ahead in a game or when we have something to lose is generally beyond us.  Whether this is a mental thing or is an instruction from the management is the crux of the matter.

The last couple of hours build up to the game were dominated by talk of whether or not it would go ahead due to the biblical amounts of rain that had been falling on Belgrade the entire day.  Rumours of a potential cancellation had obviously reached those of our crew who had made the trip and I'd had a number of texts from Belgrade from the lads looking for updates.  So, I was relieved for those who had flights booked back on Tuesday when word came through about an hour and a half before kick off that the game was definitely on.  And more than a little jealous as I confirmed that to the lads and got a few replies confirming that they were on their way to the stadium!  The next thing to come through was the team and, to be honest, I had no issues with the eleven selected of Randolph, Ward, Keogh, O'Shea, Coleman, McClean, Whelan, Hendrick, Brady, Walters and Long.  Given James McCarthy's absence through injury, I had thought it unlikely that O'Neill would bring in the likes of Harry Arter for a first competitive start and couldn't have imagined him staring Wes Hoolahan in an away qualifier like this, especially with the conditions.  It looked to me like a fairly standard 4-5-1 with the potential for  Walters to move up beside Long should we look to go 4-4-2.  My hope was that Walters and McClean would provide enough width to get good ball into the box while providing defensive cover for Coleman and Ward who should also have had the potential to overlap forward with the 3 central midfielders providing cover in front of the defence.  Despite Long being up front on his own, it looked a reasonably attacking team.

Although Serbia had the first attack of the game, Ireland reacted positively and once Brady had cut out a Tadic cross, immediately moved forward with conviction.  McClean had gathered possession and his purposeful run was unfairly halted in line with the box on the left hand side.  Given the way we play, set pieces were always going to be important and so it proved again as Brady's delivery was palmed out unconvincingly by the Serbian keeper.  John O'Shea was first onto the rebound and knocked it back across the box where after a bit of pinball, it fell to Jeff Hendrick who managed to  get over the ball and send a first time volley towards the net.  Even then, it looked like the keeper would be favourite to collect it until the ball deflected off Ivanovich and hit the back of the net!  One-nil Ireland with barely 3 minutes on the clock!

While there's always elation once we score, I have to say I'm always happier if we go ahead with a few minutes to go, such as against Italy in the Summer, rather than a few minutes into a game because once we go in front, our approach invariably changes and our mentality seems to instinctively switch to holding what we have when I'd sooner see us continue to do the same things that gave us the lead.  We sat back v Sweden in Paris once we scored and conceded.  Had we scored earlier against Italy I've no doubt we'd have sat back.  And while we stayed competitive in a similar situation for the first half against France back in June before finally unravelling, we couldn't even get that far on this occasion.  It took Serbia maybe 15 minutes after the shock of the goal to start turning the screw as we very quickly started thumping long balls up to Long who wasn't having much joy in getting anything to stick in the wet conditions.  We weren't getting much off the referee either as he ignored what looked like clear bookings for Ivanovic and Tadic only to then book Ward for a perfectly fair challenge around the 20 minute mark.  By this stage, we were looking a little shaky with Randolph making up for an earlier fluffed attempt to gather a ball by getting down sharply to parry a Kostic shot out of danger.  And matters weren't being helped by Hendrick joining Ward in the book due to the referee's insistence on booking Ireland players for challenges that looked far more innocuous than the aforementioned Serbian challenges.  It's possible that this was putting a bit of doubt into Irish heads when it came to committing to challenges in the wet conditions but Serbia were well on top by now with our only break from a succession of corners coming when Long managed to get a block in to open up the chance of a break only to lose his footing as he tried to follow the ball forward.  While Serbia weren't creating many clear cut chances at this stage, we looked nervous at the back and our clearances were bordering on the panicky side with a distinct lack of composure. A similar lack of composure was notable up front with the clearest example being a complete mess of a corner where Hendrick, looking for a return, played it short to Brady only to be caught offside.  Given how reliant we are on set pieces, that sort of  sloppiness is frustrating in the extreme.  As if to prove the point, a couple of minutes later, another set piece that was delivered first time by Brady almost resulted in a second goal as Walters' header was kept out unconvincingly by Rajkovic in the Serbia goal.  Given how poor their keeper was looking, it was unfortunate that we weren't able to put him under further pressure and instead finished the first half on the back foot again with more shaky defending leading to the ball bouncing wide off Mitrovic's shins before he could adjust himself to get a proper shot off.  Half time and we were still leading but surely we had to use the break to regroup.

Unfortunately, the second half started in the same way the first had finished with our midfield sitting in front of the back four and handing the ball back to Serbia as soon as we gained possession.  I hadn't expected O'Neill to make any changes before the 60 minute mark, but given how the game was panning out, I was screaming for the likes of Hoolahan or Arter to come on just to get a foot on the ball and try and retain possession. McClean was next to engage in sloppy play as he tried to beat an extra couple of players when a cross was on but as it was, we managed to hold until the hour through luck as much as design with Tadic putting a reasonable chance over the bar before Coleman was next to give away possession cheaply via a foul throw of all things! It was clear that something was coming and instead of the tactical change I'd hoped for once we got beyond the hour, it, unsurprisingly, was a Serbian goal. 

Given the lack of conviction in our defending, it was hardly surprising that the goal itself was sloppy in the extreme.  An Ivanovic cross was aimed towards Tadic who was being covered by O'Shea.  However, O'Shea seemed to have switched off and managed to lose sight of the ball which bounced clear to Kostic who gleefully smacked it beyond Randolph.  While this seemed to rouse us from our slumber somewhat, there was still no sign of activity on the bench and although we began to push forward a little more, we really could have gone behind to a Tadic chance hit straight at Randolph before the game's most controversial moment ensured that we found ourselves 2-1 down. A ball over the top was chased down by Kostic with Walters in pursuit, only for Kostic to throw himself to the ground as soon as he reached the box.  Considering that it was right under the nose of the ref, a booking for a dive could have been expected but instead he pointed to the spot for a penalty which Tadic was only too happy to bury.  Immediately afterwards we made our first change with Stephen Quinn coming on for Ward and Brady moving to the back. Initially it didn't look like much was changing as yet more keystone cops stuff at the back from Randolph this time saw him spill a shot to the Serbian substitute, Pavlovich, who somehow managed to hammer his shot off the crossbar when he had the goal at his mercy.  Thankfully, the ball rebounded up and into Randolph's hands as at 3-1, it surely would have been game over.

This lucky escape seemed to fully snap us out of it and, as we tend to do when we have nothing to lose, we started playing again and had our best spell of the game.  First off, Walters put away a great header from a Hendrick cross only to be correctly flagged for a marginal offside.  This was Hendrick's last contribution as he made way for Daryl Murphy on 76 minutes in what would prove to be a pivotal substitution. Being honest, I was still hoping for the likes of Hoolahan to be brought on but given how bad the pitch was cutting up, it was clear that O'Neill had decided that route one was the way to go and at least we were now playing that style with a bit more aggression and commitment.  Serbia were now the ones looking nervous as they found themselves with something to lose.  First off, McClean got on the end of a cross but couldn't keep his header down. Then a kick out from Randolph was flicked on by Murphy to put Shane Long in who stretched his toe onto the ball only for the keeper to touch it out for a corner. And it was from the corner that the pressure finally told with Murphy breaking his duck for Ireland, 23 caps and 9 years after his debut!  Having waited so long for that first goal, it's unlikely he'll get an easier one as he was left totally unmarked from Brady's corner and rose to make perfect contact with a free header that had too much pace on it for Rajkovic to keep out.  Two-all and it now seemed the game might be there to be won in the last ten minutes.

Unfortunately, as I've already mentioned, our mindset seems to change as soon as we realise we have something to lose and after one set play which Serbia managed to clear, we began to retreat again.  This resulted in more comical defending as with every defender moving out other than Coleman, Serbia played a ball in to Ivanovic whose shot was saved by Randolph, only to ricochet off Walters towards the goal where Coleman, who had played everyone onside, was able to hack clear from right on the goal line.  Looking at the replay and given his starting position, I'd give Coleman the benefit of the doubt as I think it's unlikely he'd have been able to get out in time to catch Ivanovic offside so his decision to move back was vindicated.  However, had Ivanovic beaten Randolph with his initial shot, all that would be immaterial and the chance itself seemed to sum up the absurd nature  of the Irish defending throughout the game. The next few minutes dragged by as we sat back further before finally lifting the siege around the 90 minute mark with Walters winning a free.  A final substitution with Long being withdrawn for Ciaran Clark to give us another body at the back tightened things up and the game finally finished with Murphy forcing their keeper into giving away possession enabling us to run the clock down and escape with what could be a vital point.

So the positives.  Football is a results driven game and it can't be argued that a draw away to Serbia isn't a decent result.  It's also not the first time under this management team that we have come back to get points late in games where we have been behind and where we have been very much second best in terms of possession.  There's a steeliness and never say die attitude within the team and they don't know when they're beaten.  The old adage about a lucky general being better than a good one can be argued but we've got results from unconvincing performances often enough now for it not to be put down just to luck.  O'Neill is right when he says that other teams in the group will find it hard to come to Belgrade and get results so a part of me says just take the point, put it behind us and move on to the next game against Georgia and the away trip to Moldova next month.

But (and there's always a but) an element of frustration remains.  The fact that they were missing two of their most influential players in Matic and Koralov gave us an advantage that other teams probably won't have when they come to Belgrade.  Also, the players they have coming through from their Under 20 World Cup winners will surely improve during the campaign so getting them this early probably gave us our best shot at bagging 3 points.  They looked iffy  at the back when we got at them yesterday and their keeper looked very suspect but really wasn't put under enough pressure.  And, while the conditions were clearly appalling last night, it was the same for both teams.  We seemed to give up on even attempting to play passing football due to the pitch yet Serbia had spells when they knocked it around with ease. To come out of a game with a sum total of  94 completed passes for the team is beyond a joke. I also can't help but feel that sooner or later our tendency to sit back when we have a lead or are trying to secure a point will come back to bite us.  Our inability to manage a game when we go ahead is very worrying.

All that said, we rarely put together back-to-back poor performances and, most recently away to Scotland and Poland in the last campaign, we've lost games where we've ceded possession like that in the past. It's great to have a point on the board in advance of the home campaign kicking off and a win against Georgia would put us in a good position going away to Moldova.  Having 3 of the first 4 games away from home was always a tough start so rather than concentrate on the negatives, let's chalk up the point and move on.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Hello To A New Campaign, Goodbye To A Legend

So, after what felt like the blink of an eye since our Euros came to an end, we find ourselves back at the coalface for the start of our World Cup qualifying campaign.  And, unfortunately for me, with the memories of a great trip beginning to fade, family commitments mean that I won't be able to add new memories from Belgrade for this game and will have to make do with watching it here in Dublin!  There's actually been a long run in to this group, with the strange workings of FIFA coming to the fore as they held the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup in July 2015 rather than the normal December date.  The early nature of the draw, coupled with the poor form shown by Ireland at that point in the Euro qualifying campaign, had us seeded in the 4th pot for the first time since the Euro 2008 qualifiers after having been 2nd seeds for the ultimately successful Euro campaign. The problem with the draw being so early was that no chance was given to the manager to try and turn things around in the rest of the campaign so our seeding for this campaign was set well over a year before the first ball will be kicked in anger.

The news of this seeding had been a cause of concern for many at the tine of the draw but I've always argued that too much emphasis can be put on seedings and the luck of the draw can sometimes be just as important as the pot you're in, particularly with the vagaries of the FIFA World Rankings.  And so it came to pass as we ended up in a group that for me, is certainly easier than our Euro qualifying group despite us being two pots lower than we were in February 2014 when the draw for that group was made.

That said, it wasn't looking like our luck was particularly good when we landed in one of the six team groups, with Georgia and Moldova taking up the 6th and 5th seeded spots respectively.  The new UEFA TV deal ensures that England, France, Germany and The Netherlands have to be drawn into 6 team groups so being in a 6 team group increased the odds of getting one of those teams and even though Serbia had a poor Euro campaign which was marred by crowd trouble resulting in point deductions and games being awarded to the opposition, they still wouldn't have been my preferred 3rd seeds.

At the time of the draw, with a group consisting of Serbia, Ireland, Moldova and Georgia and the potential of France or Italy coming out of pot 2.  I was beginning to get worried given the general strength of the top seeded teams.  In that context, Austria wasn't the worst team to come out even allowing for the fact that we only took 1 point off them in the last Trapattoni World Cup campaign.  And our luck definitely seemed to have changed at the time, when with Romania, England, Spain, Belgium and Croatia left in the draw, Wales were chosen as top seeds for our Group D.  With all due respect to the Welsh and even allowing for their excellent run to the semi-finals in France during the Summer, having them instead of Germany who've been our top seeds for the last two campaigns had to feel like a bonus. While I see similarities with our last group in that I think a lot of teams will take points off each other, on reflection, I'd sooner have a group consisting of Wales, Austria, Serbia and ourselves as the top four seeds than Germany, ourselves, Poland and Scotland.  But of course, the expansion of the Euros means that there is a radical difference in the opportunity to qualify with only 13 spots available in Europe for World Cup qualification as opposed to the 23 spots that were available for France.  It can't be forgotten that our route to France was secured with a 3rd place finish in the group which would result in a failed campaign this time out.  Hence, having Wales as our top seed should give us and the other contenders in the group a better shot at aiming to top the group than had we drawn one of the traditional giants of the game who, more often than not get the job done.  The potential of a hangover from Wales also can't be discounted as had been seen in the past when Sweden after World Cup 1994, Croatia after World Cup 1998 and Turkey after World Cup 2002 and Euro 2008 all struggled to build on what were unexpected semi-final appearances and failed to qualify from the following campaign.  But I guess all that remains to be seen!

From our perspective, we enter the qualifiers in a reasonable place with the feel good factor generated by how we played in our last two games against Italy and the hosts in France still in place.  The hope now has to be that this can be built upon and that the manner in which we approached those games continues and that we don't revert to the negative approach shown in France against Belgium and after we took the lead against Sweden.  It's hard to believe that the France game was the first game of Martin O'Neill's reign where he named an unchanged team.  But, with the suspension of Shane Duffy and the James McCarthy injury, this is not a luxury open to him on this occasion so I believe it's important that regardless of the personnel that come in to replace them, our approach needs to remain the same and we need to keep up the aggressive attacking style that served us so well against Italy and for the first hour against France before the attrition of a second game so soon after the Italy win took it's toll in the stifling heat of Lyon. The fact that there are doubts over the fitness of Seamus Coleman and John O'Shea is also a concern but the temptation to be conservative to compensate for the absence of first choice players must be resisted and a similar mind-set to the one we took to Sarajevo for the Bosnia play off would be ideal.

Although Serbia have struggled in recent years and have had points deducted in two of their last three campaigns due to crowd trouble, you have to look beyond their final places in those campaigns to try and judge them as opponents within the group.   They have a number of top class players who are Champions League regulars, including Ivanovich, Matic and Kolorov who people will be familiar with from plating with Chelsea and Manchester City and it's certainly a plus for us that the latter two are suspended for this fixture.  But they also have some very good young players coming through and a number of last year's Under 20 World Cup winning squad have now been promoted to the senior panel.

From the point of view of our preparation, there was little in value in football terms to be gained from Wednesday's match against Oman and one had to question how it is that we have ended up playing this opposition 3 times in the past 5 seasons.  That said, the game last Wednesday was certainly an occasion to be part of purely due to the fact that it essentially was an excuse to say goodbye to  a player who deserves to be considered amongst the greats of Irish football along with McGrath, Giles, Brady and his namesake, Roy and hopefully the feel good factor generated by the tournament in France will give another bit of momentum to the goodwill shown to Robbie Keane on his retirement. It was clear from the off that getting Keane onto the scoresheet one last time was on everyone's mind and, having been unable to convert a couple of half chances just after Robbie Brady gave us the lead, it was a real fillip for everyone in the stadium to witness one last goal for the departing captain to go with the consistent 'Keano, Keano' chants that had been echoing around the ground. And the goal, when it came, was a cracker with Walters and Long combining well before the ball came to Keane, who flicked it over the nearest defender and volleyed it into the ground and past the keeper.  It's a long time since I've heard a goal in a friendly celebrated with such fervour as every one of the 28,000 present let out  a huge roar as we witnessed the famous (and less than graceful!) somersault one last time.  As the game was over as a contest by now, it played out at testimonial pace although it was good to see Jon Walters bag a brace after his injury hit Euro campaign.  People were clearly hoping for another Keane goal to bring him past the famous Gerd Muller's international total but it wasn't to be and there was an emotional goodbye as he was called ashore for one last time.  It was nice to see YBIG mark the occasion as the Singing Section banner with the silhouette of Keane with his arms outstretched in celebration was unfurled as he left the pitch.

For me, the criticism that has been levelled at him from some quarters over the years has simply smacked of begrudgery and doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  "He only ever scores against the minnows", I've often heard said.  Outside of the fact that we can only play one or, at most two, of the traditional giants of the game in each qualification campaign, Keane has scored vital goals in competitive games against Holland, Germany, Spain, Italy and France, not to  mention goals against the likes of Yugoslavia and Russia.  He has scored in play-off games against Turkey, Iran, France and Estonia.  He scored 3 goals in 4 games at the only World Cup he played in.  And even many of his goals against what are perceived as minnows have been vital for us.  He has scored in games we've won by a single goal against the likes of Malta, Cyprus, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Macedonia.  He has scored in every year since his debut in 1998.  I'm old enough to remember Ireland's top goalscorer being Don Givens with 19.  I can remember an 'A' international against Malta just before the World Cup in 1990 being reclassified as a full international after the fact just so that Frank Stapleton's goal would bring him up to 20 and give him the record.  I can remember seeing John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino trying and falling short on 19 before Niall Quinn finally managed  to get to 21.  Robbie Keane has 68 goals for  Ireland.  The argument should end there, it's a phenomenal total and if someone is scoring with that level of regularity then the other complaints about his work rate or the fact that he waves his arms around also fall down.  I don't want someone who is scoring at that rate to be wasting energy chasing lost causes or haring down into the channels.  I want him conserving his energy to get onto the end of  something when the chance arises.  The fact that a number of his big goals came so late in games for us (Germany, Spain, Italy, Cyprus for example) gives him a pass on that for me, flogging him for 75 minutes and then substituting him was never what he was about.  And while, I really appreciate and admire the lung busting runs and harrying of defenders that is the stock in trade of the likes of Shane Long, that just wasn't Robbie's game.  And with all due respect to Long (who needs to try and take on the mantle in the short term), I don't think anyone believes that he will get anywhere near 68 goals in his Ireland career and it's unlikely that I'll see anyone do it in my lifetime. We won't see his like again and, having witnessed 60 of those goals in person, all I can say is thanks for the memories!

In terms of his departure, it's probably more off the pitch than on the pitch that he'll be missed now given how O'Neill had phased him out of the team in recent years.  And it's further credit to Keane that despite the vaguely ridiculous theory that was mooted a few years ago that he would walk away if he was no longer first choice, he never bitched or moaned when he wasn't playing and instead was practically acting as an additional member of the backroom staff as the previous campaign reached it's critical phase and indeed during the finals.  So now it's time for some of the younger players who came of age in France to step up and provide some of the leadership that will be needed.  Obviously the two biggest pluses of the tournament were Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady, who interestingly became the first player to score in 3 successive internationals since Keane himself.  Hendrick's move to the Premier League with Burnley is good to see and, while it's a shame that Norwich seemed to price Brady out of a move to that level, that's their prerogative and I don't see him being the sort of player to sulk or spit the dummy as a result.  Both players will be vital this time out and, having missed the Euros, I'm looking forward to seeing Harry Arter finally embedded into the squad along with Callum O'Dowda.  Despite his error against France, Shane Duffy's development at the back has been encouraging and the fact that John O'Shea hasn't followed Keane and Given into retirement at this stage is a positive from the point of view of his experience remaining on board.  Up front, it's as you were bar Keane with the expectation that Long and Walters will make up for the lack of natural instinctive finishing with their exceptional workrate. It's actually up front that I'd like to see someone come through out of nowhere as Walters and Murphy are both now 33 and we look light for goals there. And although Recce Grego-Cox from the Under 21's has had some Premier League and Championship experience in the last couple of seasons, his age of 19 and the fact that he has just gone on loan to Newport County in League Two indicates that this campaign will most likely be too early for him. Therefore with the back up options being the likes of Anthony Stokes and Adam Rooney who have been around the squad for a while without making much of an impact, it's up top where we really need to avoid injuries.

In terms of tonight's game then most people would probably take an away draw before kick off and I'd be happy enough to avoid defeat.  That said, we have started with away wins in each of our last 4 campaigns although Serbia are a step up from Georgia, Kazakhstan and Georgia again!  From my perspective, it's been killing me getting messages from the lads who've travelled on the various WhatsApp groups set up on previous trips so I'm already looking forward to next month's trip to Moldova and the November trip to Austria!  Hopefully, we'll have a start to match that of the Summer behind us by then!