Injury fears make O'Neill nervy for Bosnia test
In the aftermath of Stoke's conquering of Chelsea on Tuesday night, Martin O'Neill found himself in the home team's boardroom in the company of chairman Peter Coates.
After watching Jon Walters end a goalscoring performance by limping off at the end of normal time, the Ireland manager joked with Coates that he should urge Mark Hughes to rest the in-form striker until the Euro 2016 play-offs with Bosnia are out of the way.
The quip offers an insight into how O'Neill's mindset for scouting missions has changed with the defining 180 minutes of his tenure just over a fortnight away.
There are valued members of his plans short of game-time that could do with an outing but, when it comes to the regulars for club and country, O'Neill is now at the stage where he wouldn't be too disappointed if they found themselves on the bench.
"I go to matches now and I'm not enjoying them," smiled O'Neill. "It's total trepidation."
Walters, like John O'Shea, is suspended for the first leg of the Bosnian encounter yet it's clear that the 63-year-old would intend to bring them both back in for the decider. O'Shea has a hamstring issue but the early prognosis is good. There's encouraging news on the Shane Long front too, although the Derryman suggested that it could still be 'touch and go' with regard to the Tipp attacker.
With these issues hanging in the air, his nervousness about the forthcoming weekends is understandable.
The ability to draft in experienced bodies for the Dublin climax is a bonus, but Ireland have serious work to do to ensure that they bring the tie back from Bosnia alive.
After all, the opposition have Edin Dzeko fit again while set-piece specialist Miralem Pjanic is in fine form - he scored his sixth goal of the season last night.
The Roma duo are capable of exposing defensive deficiencies in Zenica, yet O'Neill is wary of taking a conservative approach as he knows from his Celtic experience that the away goal is key in the two-legged format. "If you start looking at containment, honestly you won't break out of your own half. I don't want it to be like that," he says.
"I was asked before would you settle for a result where you score a goal - of course. But I don't think you can start planning that if you're camped outside your own penalty area. I think we have the capabilities of overcoming a deficit in the match if that's the case but it's not what I'm setting out to do.
"I've been aware from the moment we hit the play-offs that John O'Shea and Jon Walters would be missing for the first leg, with a number of other players on two yellow cards.
"But I think we have to deal with the first situation. Don't start planning too much about the second game, or otherwise you fall into a trap. And we have to be thinking about scoring a goal."
What's clear is that it will be a squad effort, although some of the 39 names on the provisional list that O'Neill revealed yesterday will know they have no chance of making the final cut unless bodies start falling by the dozen.
The quick turnaround means that the well-being of the older members of the panel will have to be taken into consideration. Wes Hoolahan didn't feel up to starting against Poland and O'Neill will look for honesty from the dressing room to inform his thinking.
Hoolahan came through 120 minutes for Norwich at Goodison Park on Tuesday night after 78 minutes in the Premier League on Saturday, but he's one of the individuals with a question mark over him in the manager's eyes. "He's not 19," stresses O'Neill.
"I wouldn't force a player that I know is reluctant to play in the game," he continued, speaking generally. "And if a player says, 'I'm ready to go, I can do this', then I don't think I would have any hesitation."
Can he trust every individual to be honest about their health when they will all be keen to play?
"You get to know the players and some players I have complete trust in," he said, before adding with a grin.
"Some players I don't. And if I name the players that I have trust in then you can work out by deduction the ones that I don't. The lads all want to play. Darron Gibson would rock up and feel as though he's ready to play even if he'd played for four years. But you don't want them to turn around and say they're ready to go when they're not."
The ex-Manchester United midfielder has pushed his claims forward by lasting the duration of the aforementioned cup tie with Norwich and O'Neill feels the midfielder has refocused after his well-documented drink-driving shame. "He says that he's a new man," he explained. "I think he's got a little bit of a jolt recently and he's been working very hard."
With Ciaran Clark and Harry Arter also returning to action last night, the League Cup week has offered O'Neill some cause for optimism.
Ireland's 39-man squad to face Bosnia play-off:
D Forde (Millwall), S Given (Stoke City), K Westwood (Sheffield Wed), D Randolph (West Ham United), R Elliot (Newcastle Utd), R Keogh (Derby County), M Wilson (Stoke City), S Coleman (Everton), C Christie (Derby County), J O'Shea (Sunderland), A Pearce (Derby Co), S Duffy (Blackburn Rvs), C Clark (Aston Villa), P McShane (Reading), S Ward (Burnley), G Cunningham (Preston NE), R Brady (Norwich City), J McCarthy (Everton), J Hendrick (Derby Co), D Gibson (Everton), H Arter (Bournemouth), E O'Kane (Bournemouth), G Whelan (Stoke City), P Green (Rotherham United), A McGeady (Everton), J McClean (West Brom), A Judge (Brentford), A Pilkington (Cardiff City), D Meyler (Hull City), J Walters (Stoke City), W Hoolahan (Norwich City), R Keane (LA Galaxy), S Long (Southampton), D Murphy (Ipswich Town), K Doyle (Colorado Rapids), A Stokes (Celtic), D McGoldrick (Ipswich Town), A Rooney (Aberdeen), S Cox (Bristol City).