'I couldn't tell you what our best side is yet'
O'Neill full of optimism about young talent vying for Ireland places, writes John O'Brien
SO the year turns and we mark almost two months since Martin O'Neill was officially unveiled as Ireland manager. He has presided over two games, a comfortable victory over Latvia followed by a battling draw in Poland. The serious business still seems almost a lifetime away.
The days pass and he keeps himself busy settling in, getting to Dublin as regularly as he can, inspecting his office in the FAI headquarters in Abbotstown, building stacks with the DVDs Brian McCarthy sends to his UK home, determined to get out and about to see as many players as he can in the flesh, generally fussing over his brief in a way his predecessor never quite managed.
This, O'Neill senses, is his extended honeymoon. A chance to show his lighter side. "I've said to you before, all the things I would find strange, I find strange. It's all about the planning. I think it has all to do with how you plan the week."
Mostly, he's just having a bit of fun, though. Asking us to roll with it. Aiden McGeady? "He can be a bit exasperating." James McClean? "Daft as a brush." Loves them to bits, though. That much is easy to tell. "Oh, I can still be head on," he says, eager to clarify. "We're having a bit of fun here. With players, no, speaking about it here is totally different to the way I would deal with a player."
He had spoken to John Delaney, the FAI's chief executive, on Thursday morning and Delaney told him a story that had him in stitches. He thinks of it now because the topic has turned to friendlies and the possibility of arranging a 'B' international which, for O'Neill, carries the caveat of creating a batch of one-cap wonders, a route he is reluctant to travel. Delaney told him about the kid who had played one game in America. "An absolutely brilliant story."
What was his name again? Joey Lapira. A flash of recognition lights up his eyes. "Joey Lapira reporting for duty, sir," he chuckles. "With a baseball cap. That's absolutely classic. Brilliant."
You sense, though, that this slightly unnerving air of bonhomie will pass. In O'Neill, we have a manager who has barely had time to select his own senior panel yet, put his indelible stamp on things. Try to pinpoint his strongest 11 right now and, wisely, he refuses to be drawn. "I wouldn't be able to tell you now. September is a long way away. I don't think any of us sat round here know what the best side is at the minute."
What can't fail to impress, though, is how determined O'Neill seems to be to talk about what he has rather than what he lacks which, at times, seemed a failing of the previous regime. While they are still around, he's keen to get the best out of Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne, Shay Given too if it comes to pass, and if 2016 seems a bit out of reach for them, their value, at least in the short-term, remains high.
How long the veterans stick around isn't entirely within his control. So he doesn't sweat it. "You're thinking if Shane Long gets a bit of consistency into his game. I think he made a comment that Roy [Keane] had said to him to be a bit more selfish in front of goal and he thought he took it on board and he scores two goals against Aston Villa. It's nice to hear Roy had that kind of influence."
It seems so perfunctory, such a basic thing, but there is a warming reassurance about the busy nature of O'Neill and Keane, rushing around the grounds, keeping tabs on players and getting excited about the smattering of young talent that is out there, a needy antidote after the years where teams and squads too often seemed set in stone and good players were head-scratchingly dismissed to the margins.
"I mean Seamus Coleman," O'Neill says, his voice rising an octave. "Exceptional, a really exceptional player. One of the best full-backs going. And young [James] McCarthy improving, playing for Everton, playing top-class football. It's great. So you think we've a fairly decent chance at the minute."
Maybe it is merely because these are the players he is most asked about, but it seems interesting that those who excite him most are the creative types, as if there is a notion of building a side around that potential: an attack-minded full-back, a midfield playmaker, speedy and confidence-driven wingers, the McClean he knows from his Sunderland days, the McGeady he handed his debut to at Celtic.
He senses, that at 27, McGeady has more to offer and unearthing that untapped potential could become something of a mission. "I've got a lot of time for him. I can understand a lot of managers saying he's a bit exasperating. He's got me in little doses and I've got him in little doses and it might work out well. But he has the talent."
And O'Neill, it seems, has the ambition and the burning enthusiasm to try to unlock it. It is the overwhelming impression he conveys: a manager happy in his skin, satisfied that whatever initial doubts he harboured about taking the international route have been entirely dispelled now. He figures Keane itches to go back down that road, sooner rather than later perhaps, but for now he is on board and committed to the cause.
"Will Roy want to be a manager on his own? Absolutely. Of course. He's young. He wants to do it. He wants to get a few of these things, like the Ipswich debacle, out of his system and stuff like that. Will he manage again on his own? Of course. I'd be disappointed if he didn't."
And after wisely rowing back from the word debacle -- "that might not be Roy's thinking" -- he reflects on the world he left behind when Ellis Short decided he was no longer the man for Sunderland. Think back a year, he says. West Brom suffering nosebleeds at the top end of the table, Steve Clarke one of the brightest young managers around. And now? All that credit evaporated after a few defeats. The shepherd's crook by Christmas. Just another grim football statistic.
"They [club owners] make all sorts of excuses now," O'Neill shrugs. "Suddenly it's a calendar year, not season by season any more. It's a calendar year if it suits the purpose. Now it will be a calendar month. Now a calendar 15 minutes. I swear to God. It'll be down to, 'Oh we didn't score in the last 15 minutes'. Crazy! Crazy! Does Roy want to get back into that? Of course he does."
O'Neill, though, seems joyously happy to have stepped off the carousel. Patently in a good place now. Two months in, what more would you want than that?