O'Neill hoping to avoid French 'friendly fire'
Ireland boss concerned meaningless fixtures against host nation could disrupt momentum in bid to reach Euro 2016
Published 22/02/2014 | 02:30
MARTIN O'NEILL's first qualifying draw as Ireland manager will be packed with novelty value. Take the leading entry on his wish list as a prime example.
When the 61-year-old takes his seat in Nice tomorrow morning next to his assistant Roy Keane, his main priority is avoiding a team that has already qualified for Euro 2016. The presence of France on the fringes of this draw is just one peculiarity of a tournament that is breaking ground in a number of ways.
This is the first 24-team finals, so the top two in every group and one best third-placed team shall qualify automatically before the other bronze medal finishers battle it out for the remaining four places. Almost half of the entrants will make the finals.
It also marks the birth of the highly-touted centralised TV deal which will alter the fixture schedule as we know it and distribute revenue evenly. There will be no political fighting to secure a favourable order of games once the groups are decided in the morning.
Instead, a UEFA system will determine the fixture list later in the day, with matches spread out across what is being styled as the 'Week of Football' – meaning that ties around the continent will be staggered from Thursday to Tuesday for double header windows in the qualifying phase. Ireland could end up involved in qualifiers on Sunday and Monday nights, a major departure from the norm.
For O'Neill, everything in international football management is new, but he travels with more permutations to consider than his predecessors. All will be much clearer when he leaves the Cote d'Azur with a competitive itinerary for the next two years. Then, the real planning can begin.
He kept his cards relatively close to his chest when asked what he wanted, other than asserting that he would prefer to avoid a pair of phoney wars with the party organisers.
When UEFA draw the 53 prospective finalists into eight groups of six and one group of five, the French will be added to the latter division and included in their fixture rota, even though games involving Les Bleus will count for nothing and have zero impact on the final standings.
It is a move arising from the complaints of previous hosts who felt out of the loop and short of match practice by spending the lengthy preparation period searching for opponents elsewhere when most European nations were engaged in serious business. O'Neill doesn't want to end up as part of that experiment, feeling it could check the rhythm of countries who actually have something at stake.
"I would not like to be in that group," he said. "I think that it would disrupt momentum. Okay, if you have just come off a bad result, it might reignite something but overall I would prefer not to be in that sort of group.
"You have a competitive mindset and the last thing you want to do is to have them interspersed with some sort of friendly game thrown in that is of no great consequence. Seemingly it's being done for political purposes. If we are in that group I would probably consider that to be unlucky."
Giovanni Trapattoni had mixed fortunes in these lotteries. World Cup 2010 was a mixed bag, the road to Euro 2012 was kind and the path to World Cup 2014 was devilishly difficult. As second seeds, Ireland are technically in a stronger position to land a gentler outcome for O'Neill's crucial campaign, yet he can see no difference between Pot 2 and Pot 3. "None," he asserted. "Some teams in Pot 3 are very strong."
Three teams in Ireland's category – Belgium, Croatia and Switzerland – will go to this summer's World Cup, so avoiding them is welcome, but potential opponents include Serbia, Turkey and the Austrian side that effectively finished Trapattoni's tenure.
Danger also lurks in Pot 4 in the form of Armenia and Montenegro in particular, along with Scotland and Wales. Iceland almost made it to Rio and they are just one of the banana skins in Pot 5.
Indeed, the better the devil you know theory identifies Northern Ireland as an attractive proposition from that bracket, although O'Neill had no intention of contemplating the emotional connotations of that scenario.
"Ask me if it happens," he said. His former Northern Ireland team-mate Pat Jennings will be part of the draw ceremony.
The Irish supremo believes having no input in the fixture schedule removes a traditional method of gaining an advantage. In the past, FAI delegations have sought to tactically arrange home matches. Trapattoni had a preference for getting long trips out of the way early.
"It would have been nice to have organised it," said his replacement. "To walk out of the draw afterwards and think, yeah, we got that game played then... I would have liked to have been in a little room with some other country arguing the toss."
Alas, his input will be the same as expectant Irish fans seeking encouragement. For the hardcore support, tomorrow will dictate holiday thoughts for the next two years.
Meanwhile, in FAI land, the pooling of TV money removes one financial concern for the hierarchy. Nevertheless, they are desperate to secure marquee opposition from Pot 1 for the sake of ticket sales. After all, they can finish runners-up to a superpower and still book tickets to the top table.
With Euro 2020 networking thrown into the equation, this is an important weekend on many levels. The FAI invested in a new management package with a view to ensuring a longer adventure in France two years from now. This is the one part of the mission statement that O'Neill can do nothing about.
Bosnia, Ireland, Slovakia, Latvia, Northern Ireland, Andorra.
Germany, Ireland, Turkey, Montenegro, Iceland, Kazakhstan.
Euro 2016 Draw, Live Sky Sports News, tomorrow 10.30am