Among the many positives Martin O'Neill can draw from last night's 2-2 draw with Slovakia is the performance of Cyrus Christie. The Derby County full-back played the full ninety minutes and was one of Ireland's standout performers, particularly in an otherwise dull second half. Christie's willingness to exploit the space O'Neill's diamond formation afforded him at the right flank saw him contribute considerable attacking impetus, and his performance on the compared favourably with Stephen Ward's poor showing from left-back.
Not only did it contrast greatly with Ward's performance, it was also a transformation of Christie's comparatively meek debut against Gibraltar, a game in which he was very reluctant. In a bid to establish the reason behind Christie's attacking metamorphosis, we spoke to Steve Nicholson, who covers Derby County for the Derby Telegraph. He attributes Christie's performance to an upturn in confidence:
When Cyrus first signed with Derby, he started like a house on fire, he was electric, rampaging up and down the right wing. In the first few months of last season, he was arguably Derby's best player.
But when the team then hit a low and started to struggle, Cyrus began to struggle, which is understandable. But he is such a confidence player -that is the key to understanding him as a player - and he has admitted that he can go up and down in terms of confidence. But when his confidence is high, as it is at the minute, you can see it in his performances.
Christie's confidence seeped away at the beginning of this season, and was dropped by Paul Clement, replaced by Northern Ireland's Chris Baird. A restoration of his confidence, however, brought about a return to the team, and Christie's run of playing in every single league game since Septemeber was only recently brought to an end. Nicholson attributes this return of confidence to his international management team:
He gives Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane a lot of praise here. They've had a really encouraging impact on him by just encouraging him to do what he is good at. He has gone on record saying that going away with Ireland has done him the world of good - as have Richard Keogh and Jeff Hendrick - and that's the O'Neill and Roy Keane effect.
Martin O'Neill, I think, in general, makes players feel good about themselves. The key to it is encouraging players to do what they're good at, rather than what they're good at. When you watch Cyrus you can see when his confidence is up. he looks strong when he goes forward, he looks quicker, he looks bigger to me, more confident.
Nicholson believes his defensive partner Keogh has also benefitted from spells with the Irish squad. Infamously, Keogh committed the mistake in the final minute of the 2014 play-off final that saw QPR promoted at Derby's expense.The Irish defender faced a lot of criticism from fans over the error, but he has bounced back extremely well according to Nicholson:
Keogh has probably been Derby's best player this season. He faced some fierce criticism from fans after that, he had the captaincy stripped off him by Paul Clement, but he has bounced back.
A few fans really had a go at him [after the error in the play-off final] which was totally unfair because mistakes happen. That drifted into the next season. Derby messed up, went from first to eighth, promotion dreams were shattered for a second time and he took a lot of the flak. Now he has really bounced back.
Keogh was an unused substitute in both the Switzerland and Slovakia games, which is probably a good sign for him, as O'Neill was likely using the games to give an audition to back-up central defenders. Jeff Hendrick also did not play in the friendly games owing to injury. Nicholson confirms that Hendrick is in contention to face Cardiff this weekend,and believes he is another player who benefits from a consistent run of games. The fact he has played nine of Derby's last ten games, Nicholson says, can only be good news for Ireland.
If he is fit to play, he will be doing so in front of Harry Redknapp, who has returned from his brief stint in charge of Jordan to resume his role as a football advisor at Derby. Nicholson confirmed to us Redknapp's role:
His title is football advisor. He has seen just one game so far, the Forest game, which he watched from the director's box. He was in the dressing room before the game, after the game and at half-time, but he told me he won't be involved in picking the team until he has seen them in two or three games.
He is just there to lend his experienced eye there, as the interim coach Darren Wassell is a rookie in terms of first-team management.
Wassell actually dropped Christie for academy graduate Jamie Hanson for the Forest derby, so hopefully he can force his way back into the Derby team off the back of the Slovakia performance. Nonetheless, he is nailed on for a spot in the Irish squad for the Euros. With Seamus Coleman ahead of him, however, it's just a pity Christie isn't left-footed.