Wednesday 18 October 2017

Comment: FAI banking on O'Neill's Midas touch when it really matters

Ireland can go into play-offs with confidence on the back of another landmark victory

Martin O’Neill acknowledges supporters after Ireland’s famous victory in Cardiff. Photo: REUTERS
Martin O’Neill acknowledges supporters after Ireland’s famous victory in Cardiff. Photo: REUTERS
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

For the decision-makers in the FAI, budget day took on a different meaning. A lucrative November double-header will ease any financial worries they might have going into Christmas.

Ireland's win in Cardiff is just the tonic that the Abbotstown chiefs needed because the alternative outcome opened up the possibility of an austere 2018.

Every penny counts when there's a €30m+ bank debt to service and World Cup elimination at the end of the group stage would have resulted in a long wait until next September for competitive action - and that is the new UEFA Nations League which will be a tough sell. Regular European Championship qualifying does not kick off until March 2019.

A limp exit would have raised questions about extending Martin O'Neill's tenure into a third term as the FAI need a buzz around their fixtures to sell tickets for friendlies.

The prospect of a regular November friendly with a fringe panel would have been an anti-climax after a year that looked to be building towards a play-off at the very least.

So the show is very much back on the road now. Ireland will pack the Aviva for their play-off regardless of the opponent and that will be worth an additional €1m or so to the association. The prize at stake over two legs is a reward of somewhere between €8m to €10m.

Logistical

Granted, if Euro 2016 is anything to go by then around 60pc will be eaten up by bonus payments to management and players and the logistical aspects of booking a stay in Russia.

But that's not an unreasonable price to pay for the opportunity to return to the World Cup stage for the first time since 2002.

The ancillary benefits of that are considerable, even if the FAI's lingering debt issues arising from ludicrous pricing of premium level tickets for the Aviva continue to weigh them down.

John Delaney has always said that they do not budget for major tournament qualifications.

However, he has admitted that the board will sit down at the beginning of 2018 and make pressing decisions about their financial future.

In short, it's about whether they can press on with the long-held plan to be debt-free by 2020 or else push that deadline back and actually invest some money in areas that have suffered from cuts.

The senior team remains the FAI's main cash cow. Good results are imperative for business and the significance of O'Neill's win is that it has regained the Euro 2016 momentum that was lost with a run of underwhelming Dublin displays in this calendar year.

Even if there's an honourable defeat next month, it will be easier to push what comes next and sell the belief that the players remain on board with O'Neill and this regime. That unity shone through in adversity.

Ireland are the only European fourth seed still in the competition and, while opportunities were missed along the way, extending the interest to the final hurdle is a good achievement.

It's not a coincidence that O'Neill keeps delivering big wins, even if it isn't always pretty. Under the 65-year-old's stewardship, Ireland have registered competitive victories against sides ranked 2, 12, 13 and 20 in the world. Prior to the 2015 breakthrough against then world champions Germany, Holland in 2001 was the tired reference point for a major upset.

O'Neill has changed all of that and that's without a golden generation. In the context of the past six months, the unavailability of his best player, Seamus Coleman, was an added complication.

Yet Ireland have stayed in the race, leaving Wales and Austria behind with broken dreams.

Notable football nations such as Holland, Norway, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Turkey and Romania have no dates in the diary to be excited about. Poor old Scotland remain immersed in misery.

Ireland will again be the underdogs next month. As the unseeded side, they face a stiff task if they have ambitions of progression.

The team's supporters know that play-off defeats sting more than any other. They are football's version of fourth place in the Olympics or the international game's equivalent of a cup semi-final defeat that only serves to remind the losers of what they could have won when the big event comes around.

Two years ago, it brought the best out of O'Neill's side when a measured two-legged display against Bosnia ended in glory.

Ireland were unseeded then too, yet they were encountering teams which had finished third in a qualifying group so this should be a level up. FIFA work off the ever-changing world rankings that can vary dramatically from month to month and there are a rump of European nations which a blanket could be thrown over.

On a given day, they are capable of beating the other. Italy are the real blue-chip presence. Switzerland started their weak group like world beaters but were made to look very average by Portugal in their crunch match last night.

Vulnerabilities

Croatia and Denmark are in the playoffs for a reason. They showed vulnerabilities along the way and dropped points to find themselves behind Iceland and Poland respectively.

O'Neill joked on Monday night that he fears every opponent and that shines a light on a conservative approach that might colour team selections. And there have been games against lower-profile opposition where they have been disappointingly tentative, afraid of taking control.

In all of the landmark victories there have been rough spells, but the spirit levels remain high. When Ireland played Bosnia, the build-up was notable for the talking-up of opposition that read well on paper.

O'Neill's squad list will not terrify opposition. But their collective strength makes them an awkward opponent, the type of team you might expect to encounter on a rainy Tuesday night in Stoke.

Add that steel into the stifling pressure of the play-offs and anything is possible.

The FAI's belief in O'Neill could pay off at just the right time.

Irish Independent

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