independent

Friday 18 April 2014

'Don't treat these games like friendlies' - Martin O'Neill

O'Neill demands urgency and enthusiasm in bid to get Ireland buzzing again as he vows to give every player chance to prove worth

EARLIER this week, Martin O'Neill told the FAI's head of security Bobby Ward that he didn't need to be paying him so much attention.

"I said to him 'I don't want you looking after me now Bobby, everything's fine. It's after we lose a few games that you should be looking after me'," explained the Irish boss, ahead of final training at the Aviva Stadium before tonight's opening date with Latvia.

He was joking, of course, but O'Neill has been around the game long enough to know that a wave of euphoria only lasts for a limited period.

In time, the details of this encounter will be quickly forgotten. The outcome of a manager's first game is rarely an indicator of what's to come.

After all, Jack Charlton's glory years kicked off with a humdrum loss to Wales at Lansdowne Road, whereas Steve Staunton's miserable tenure began with a joyous filleting of Sweden at the same venue.

That said, Giovanni Trapattoni's Croke Park draw with Serbia was, in some ways, a preparation for the glass half empty, glass half full debate that defined his tenure.

RESPONSE

While the result matters little in terms of the endgame, maintaining the good vibes means something to O'Neill and his paymasters. The FAI anticipate an attendance in the region of 35,000-40,000 – an immediate response to the appointment of the Derry man and his high-profile assistant Roy Keane.

Clearly, the public are intrigued by the change in the dugout, and it's entirely likely the main activity before kick-off will be the scramble to get a money shot of the managerial duo standing side by side.

But there will also be a sense of anticipation around the identity and approach of his team, as the 61-year-old was giving away little clues yesterday.

Giovanni Trapattoni had no qualms about naming his selection on the eve of the game, with fans knowing exactly what to expect.

O'Neill is set to keep people guessing until the last minute, and his players will find out only earlier in the day. Part of the uncertainty stems from his own deliberations.

"Some of the questions you are asking me, I wish I was aware of (answers), but there are some things I would just like to run through with the players," he explained. "Results are obviously important and it would be nice to get off to a good start, nice to win some football matches.

"But there will be an element of experimentation as well. I would like those who don't play tomorrow night to get some time in Poland (on Tuesday) as well, so it's a matter of maybe putting those thoughts together and trying to familiarise myself with some of the players I don't really know.

"The players have given a great response, I have been delighted with that. They've been very enthusiastic this week but I suppose you would expect that anyway, maybe, with a new manager coming in. But it's been pretty positive so far."

In these situations, the obvious temptation for a manager is to illustrate what he intends to do differently compared to his predecessor.

However, given his anger at Paolo Di Canio's comments about O'Neill's reign at Sunderland, the Irish boss has no interest in criticising Trapattoni and is happy that his players have generally followed that lead.

"I see this all too often in the past," he elaborated. "I left a club and some player was interviewed and said the manager had his favourites. Yes, I did. They were generally the best players."

Both O'Neill and Keane have praised Aiden McGeady this week, believing he can be an important player in the next two years, so he should be restored to the side after Noel King preferred others in his brief stay.

The unavailability of Richard Dunne and Ciaran Clark presents a decision in the centre of defence, with Alex Pearce and Sean St Ledger vying to partner John O'Shea.

Robbie Keane will lead the line, but O'Neill must ponder how to structure his midfield, with a decision to be made on the involvement of Wes Hoolahan and Andy Reid, and the specific deployment of Marc Wilson.

The one thing he did stress, whatever the identity of his XI, is that he will encourage them to operate at a high intensity, which is something the punters will enjoy compared to the frequent lethargy of home games in the previous regime.

"I would like us to try and press reasonably high up the pitch if we can do, and if we can win the ball closer to their goal, it will give some of our ball players that opportunity to be closer to doing that (scoring)," said the manager.

"I know the game seems to be just full of stats nowadays. You know stats for passing, stats for picking your nose or something they say at the end of the day. The important stats are actually scoring goals.

"It's a great thought in theory, maybe a different thing totally in practice, but hopefully we will try to get some enjoyment out of it.

"For me, the best enjoyment is to go to win the game, but we will try to play with a bit of drive, enthusiasm, determination, all the things that I am hoping you would expect from the side.

"I don't want the players to treat these like friendly games.

"I told them that last night. It's a bit like pre-season when I went into a club for the first time. It became important because I have to make judgments on players and that's exactly how I see these two games. They may not be competitive in terms of picking up points, but they are very important."

The reality of international friendlies tends to have a sobering effect and the possibility remains that boredom could sweep the stadium tonight, especially if the second half is peppered with substitutions.

In truth, the ultimate compliment would be if the cursed Mexican Wave is delayed until the final minutes.

"I'm genuinely excited by this," enthused O'Neill. "The week has been great, it's been absolutely fine but I'm well aware this is the 10-minute honeymoon period."

With the right application, that honeymoon should be extended for at least 80 minutes more.

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