O'Neill is ready for the bumps and bruises as real business begins
Manager warns of threat in Tbilisi - 'There are Kinkladzes everywhere' - and advises fans to fasten their seatbelts
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
The skirmishes are over and the battle proper is about to be joined for Martin O'Neill and his Irish team.
After what seemed like an eternity of friendlies, O'Neill will finally get to step into the arena of international combat when Ireland take on Georgia on September 7 and he is relishing the prospect. The competitive beast inside this softly-spoken Derryman is straining at the leash, pawing the ground with anticipation as Ireland's qualifying odyssey for Euro 2016 is about to commence.
His itch for competitive action will soon be scratched, but the 62-year-old is not expecting Georgia to provide him with a comforting salve. O'Neill warned that they will be difficult first opponents.
"Georgia can play, they definitely can play," he said. "I'm telling you, you could go to any game in Georgia and find out they have a Kinkladze in their team, even their manager was a decent player," he said of Temuri Ketsbaia, who spent four seasons at Newcastle United. "You know that technically they are very decent and we have got them at a time when ideally it would have been great not to."
Tbilisi will be a hostile environment for O'Neill to take his first steps into the furnace of qualifying. Last September, Georgia held France to a scoreless draw there, having lost 3-1 in Paris earlier in the World Cup campaign. The timing of the game, early in the season, is posing particular concern.
"It is the opening game, so there will be a freshness about them and you will have to counteract those things. The crowd will be behind them. It's not like there are six games gone and teams are falling by the wayside, that would be the best time to play them. It is what it is, the draw has been made, three of the first four games are away from home and it is a tough start for us," he said with an air of resignation in his voice.
In the vacuum left by the absence of competitive action, stories have rushed in like hot air to fill the void.
The future employment options of his assistant manager, Roy Keane, was the vacuum filler of choice during the squad's end-of-season friendlies. Now that Keane is combining his Ireland duties with his new job as assistant manager at Aston Villa, still the wind rushes in and O'Neill is forced to speak about the state of their relationship. They see less of each other than before, but other than that, all is rosy in the garden. "So far the relationship between Roy and myself has been unaffected by his new job. He is still available to speak to, I've not seen any change so far. That doesn't mean as time goes on . . . but you're speaking to me now and there has been no change other than the fact that there might be the occasional game that he would have loved to have gone to, but couldn't and that would be it. So far I haven't seen any practical changes."
But football is a fluid business and the former Celtic, Sunderland and Aston Villa manager is prepared for any changes which may occur. Ireland's general is already preparing his battle plan for the future and although his second in command remains committed, two trusted lieutenants will join O'Neill's officer corps. Steve Guppy and Steve Walford became temporary members of the coaching staff for the final round of friendlies before the World Cup and O'Neill admitted he would love to make them permanent members of the team, regardless of Keane's availability, providing it is possible.
"It's just a matter of fitting people in, they can watch games for me and I think they get on fine with Roy as well and Seamus (McDonagh, goalkeeping coach). I would like to have them around the scene, but I understand that this is not something we can have on a full-time basis, we just don't have the wherewithal to do that, but I would like to have them here with us."
O'Neill claims he now has more help than ever before, with Walford and Guppy happy to watch games for him and John Robertson could also be called upon to run his eye over an Irish player or two, without disrupting his retirement.
Now that phoney war is over and battle commences for real, O'Neill will ratchet up the intensity levels around the squad. He is not threatening to morph into a tyrant with an iron rule, but the relaxed atmosphere of the Irish camp over the course of the last nine months will undergo subtle changes in preparation for the rigours of competition. The real work starts now and O'Neill is warning fans to fasten their seatbelts.
The relaxed atmosphere of the Irish camp will undergo subtle changes
"We will have bumps and bruises along the way, but you are hoping at the end of it all, when you come out, you have your head above the parapet and you've made it. That is it, that is obviously an aim. It is not going to be easy for us, we don't possess that ability in our team here to be able to wipe the floor with sides. We don't. It will be a lot of hard work for us, it really will be. We know this ourselves and you know that there will be one or two moments when you think, 'Oh that was just really rubbish', but there will be one or two moments during the course of the thing where you think, 'That's not bad at all'. It's where we are."
The general is ready for the campaign ahead, he has always been.
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