Updated at 20.42
THERE ARE CERTAIN footballers who it sometimes becomes in vogue to bash, and if you’re an Ireland fan, Aiden McGeady often seems like one of those players.
Yet without the Scottish-born winger, the Irish team are undoubtedly a weaker side and the fact that he has been recruited by one of the Premier League’s top clubs only strengthens this view. Many candidates have been touted for the winger roles in his various absences through injury — James McClean, Robbie Brady and Anthony Pilkington are among those often supported — but none have fully convinced.
Moreover, there is one vital component that all of the aforementioned names aren’t renowned for, which McGeady possesses in spades — a formidable dribbling or ball-carrying ability.
One of the primary reasons why Ireland’s attack was so flimsy in their World Cup qualifiers against Sweden and Austria (and to an arguably lesser extent against Germany) was their inability to go forward with any real conviction, in addition to the dearth of players capable of taking the ball into good attacking positions.
McClean, Pilkington and Jonathan Walters were all tried out at various stages, yet they rarely looked comfortable on the ball, nor were they normally confident or indeed skilful enough to take on their man. The same could be said for Kevin Doyle and Glenn Whelan against Germany, and tellingly, it wasn’t until McGeady came on in their last qualifier against Kazhakhstan that they posed any real threat on the flanks.
McGeady, though he has his detractors, brings an element of unpredictability to the side’s attack and is likely one of the few Irish players that opponents would go to the trouble of studying before games. Teams sometimes even feel the need to double mark him, consequently restricting their attack and ensuring that other Irish players have more time and space on the ball.
Yet McGeady’s greatest asset is also the reason why he is routinely condemned by fans — he’s not afraid to try things. Consequently, he often irritates and even alienates supporters. While beating two players and only producing a sub-standard cross is much harder to do than simply hoofing the ball forward to no one in particular, the latter is generally accepted by supporters while the former will inevitably be met with mass groans of disapproval. Yet when stepping back and objectively analysing the situation, most people would agree that the team needs less hoofing and more dribbling, even if the latter tactic is only partially successful.
The former Spartak Moscow player’s critics will undoubtedly claim that his final product invariably lets him down. And this is true to a degree — he’s not exactly Gareth Bale when it comes to finishing. However, this is surely the case with most wingers. The modern game is so fast-paced and players tend to have so little time on the ball that the odd poor cross is unavoidable.
Critics will then continue by arguing that McGeady hits more than the odd inept cross and will probably suggest that he almost never delivers. However, there is one statistic that cannot be argued with — during Trapattoni’s time in charge, he was top of Ireland’s assist charts with 10. The next highest only managed half that with five. He was also highly effective for much of his time with Spartak Moscow, scoring 13 goals and registering 29 assists during his time there, and is certainly capable of continuing that level of form with Everton.
Accordingly, people are quick to insist that McGeady shouldn’t be anywhere near the Irish team, yet when that situation actually materialised (owing to an injury), the side were more hopeless than ever, in an attacking sense, in the vital World Cup qualifiers against Austria and Sweden. The former Celtic man, therefore, adds a different dimension to the Irish team that no other player can offer.
So, just as Robbie Keane is underappreciated despite all the goals he scores, McGeady fails to get the credit he merits for all his assists. People baulk at the idea of him being in the team, yet struggle to come up with a viable alternative when pressed.
That said, there is no denying the 27-year-old can be erratic at times. He hasn’t always been at his best for Ireland, even when his club form is excellent, but this must be considered in the context of the Trapattoni era. The winger enjoyed far more freedom for Spartak than he ever did for his country, and Irish supporters will hope Martin O’Neill doesn’t impose a similar level of restrictiveness on the player — orders which he was obliged to follow during Trap’s reign.
McGeady ostensibly has a good relationship with O’Neill, who gave him his Celtic debut as a teenager late on in his reign as manager there. And with the careers of Ireland stalwarts such as Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane seemingly winding down, a new generation of players will be required to compensate for their absence.
Decisions such as where O’Neill opts to pick his former protégé — he has an ability to play on the left or right of midfield, behind the striker or in a roaming role — will likely be key to Ireland’s future success (or lack thereof, perhaps). And if O’Neill does succeed in getting the best out of the winger, he may finally be able to silence the critics who suggest Ireland don’t have the skill or technical ability to thrive on the international stage — two attributes, incidentally, that McGeady possesses in spades.
A version of this article originally appeared on 5 November 2013.