Friday 28 July 2017

Mixed messages belie O'Neill's confidence in his future

Ireland moving forward despite work stalling on manager's new contract

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

Martin O'Neill says there will be news on a long-awaited contract extension with the FAI "very, very shortly", and re-asserted his keenness to remain in the job.

The Irish manager's current deal of around €1m a year will end after Euro 2016, but there is widespread expectation he and assistant Roy Keane will soon sign extensions on improved terms, to take them up to 2018 World Cup.

"I haven't any news on the contract," O'Neill said when asked after Ireland's 2-2 draw with Slovakia on Tuesday. "I think there should be something very, very shortly but I think that we're keen to get things going and the FAI have been excellent about it, excellent."

The Irish manager made those comments with breeziness and confidence but, as has become something of a constant with an issue that has been unresolved since first arising in September, it was impossible not to notice the openness of particular words used. Some around the FAI have maintained that discussions started back in January, for example, yet O'Neill almost gave the impression here that they hadn't even properly sat down as he said both sides are "keen to get things going".

Such mixed messages have been a trend any time the topic has come up, and has led to the one slight undercurrent of uncertainty in what has otherwise been a serene build-up to Euro 2016 so far, bar Rob Elliot's unfortunate injury. The contract question also led to the one moment of slight tension in the past 10 days, even if O'Neill's response to it emphasised his commitment.

News broke in the middle of the Slovakia match that Remi Garde had finally left free-falling Aston Villa, so the Irish boss was asked by a broadcaster about his old club, and whether he'd go back.

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"Listen I have a job to do here," the 64-year-old began, before interrupting himself with incredulity at the gall of the questioner. "How dare you ask me that?" he said with deliberate slowness to make a point.

That was still delivered with a half-smile, and that itself reflects the fact O'Neill is hugely relaxed about his future. He is going to have to find a way to keep himself active for the next two months, though, as he plans for Euro 2016 without getting to spend any proper time with his players until the end of May. It is a bizarre period for a manager in that sense, as he can't even test out any new ideas he has on a training pitch. So, O'Neill revealed he would spend it rigorously studying the three teams Ireland will face in the group stages.

"I think the most important thing now from here on in is to know as much as I can about the opposition. While I've had them, I've just had a cursory glance at the players that Sweden, and Belgium and Italy will be using. In fairness, we could all name 16 or 17 of them right now. That's not unusual but, from here on in, not only their qualification games I'll use, but any sort of friendly matches [if] they've been introducing a little bit of new blood. That's what I'll be spending my time doing, as well as looking at the games of our players."

O'Neill introduced new blood of his own over the last few days, as he gave all four new call-ups their debuts - Matt Doherty, Eunan O'Kane, Alan Judge and Jonathan Hayes. He was also pleased that, in the Slovakia draw, he was able to get the players accustomed to a new tactical approach in midfield - Glenn Whelan holding, James McCarthy and O'Kane on the sides and Wes Hoolahan floating.

"The players in that match might have got used to a type of diamond that we hadn't really done before. At least, we have to introduce it out there [at Euro 2016], the players will at least have some sort of [knowledge] of it."

John O'Shea explained some of the thought behind it, as he revealed O'Neill wanted them to be more proactive than in the 1-0 win over Switzerland.

"We wanted to be higher up the pitch in terms of pressing them a lot more than we did to Switzerland and you could see that especially and, obviously, keeping possession of the ball better too. Ultimately, over the two games we have not lost and there is a bit of positivity and momentum kept going."

That's hard to dispute. Other than Elliot's unfortunate injury, it was mostly a week of pluses. The team played well in a new tactical approach, new players were successfully introduced, the strength of the squad was deepened, and the side didn't really lose any of its cohesion.

"You know it's a case of competition is healthy," O'Shea explained. "It is the atmosphere that everybody has created, the positive attitude to be ready when called upon."

There is certainly healthy competition for the goalkeeping spot, although Elliot's situation may now see Darren Randolph get the number one jersey. In defence, Cyrus Christie's development means any Seamus Coleman absence is not a total disaster, and Shane Duffy leapt well ahead of Paul McShane as fourth-choice centre-half while also showing how high he can leap above other international players in the air. There is now variety to the midfield and James McClean, operating in the Jon Walters role, ensured more options up front too.

The one slight concern over the past few days has been in attack, but that is not down to temporary injuries. It is down to the lack of variety in how Ireland score. Of 11 goals in the last 12 months other than the match against Gibraltar, only two have come from 'open play'. Four have come from penalties, three from corners, one from a free-kick and another - if the most famous - from a simple goalkeeping punt.

Ireland are at least moving forward, though. They just might have to be a touch more creative once they get there. That could be the next thing to work on - as well as that contract.

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