Sunday 11 December 2016

'I could lower the average age of the squad overnight but it's my job to qualify for competitions'

O'Neill reluctant to bring in young players for the sake of it with competitive results his top priority

Published 24/09/2016 | 02:30

Martin O’Neill arrives at the Irish squad announcement at the Aviva Stadium yesterday Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill arrives at the Irish squad announcement at the Aviva Stadium yesterday Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

IT was a query about the age profile of his squad that set Martin O'Neill off on a slight tangent about his mission statement as Ireland manager.

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The 64-year-old has formally committed to the FAI by belatedly signing the contract that ties him down for the World Cup campaign, but that's as far as security goes in a job which has a short-term brief.

He has stayed because he feels that qualification for Russia is a viable option, and his confident belief is that the retention of the current management structures gives Ireland their best chance of getting there.

O'Neill was hired to make tournaments and acknowledged that a failure to make the Euros might well have taken any decision about the future out of his hands.

Therefore, he makes no apologies if he announces squads that appear to be conservative and offer little evidence of a next generation knocking on the door.

The provisional panel to face Georgia and Moldova could be filed under that heading with Barnsley's Conor Hourihane and Falkirk's Danny Rogers the only fresh faces.

"Let us develop something here," said O'Neill, sitting up in his chair to address this subject matter. "You have to ask yourself and I have to ask myself. What is my job? My job is essentially to qualify for competitions.

"I could lessen the age of the team overnight. I could bring in players who might not be capable of doing the job for two or three years and I think that would sort of be hiding behind the point.

Qualify

"My job is to essentially qualify for competitions. First and foremost, that is my job. Would you agree with that?"

The room agreed.

"Right, well, I can't go into the transfer market to change players around. You have to work with what you have, and hopefully as you go along the likes of Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick come through and make progress.

"During the course of time, you are looking for new blood to come in but that new blood still has to prove itself and in the meantime you have to get some results.

"If I thought I was going to be here for ten years then, absolutely, of course, but I can't take my eye off us trying to qualify."

This was a polite way of saying there was no four-year plan, the line which can be spun to buy time.

The FAI have used that line in the past, but their investment in the dream team of O'Neill and Keane was always about the here and now. Shifting tickets is important and that is dependent on the side being competitive.

O'Neill did say that an individual that came along and lit up the Premier League or Championship would immediately be considered even if there's unlikely to be another friendly match until next year - a November game seems off the agenda.

In Scott Hogan, there is already an option in that bracket. The problem is that the Brentford attacker is unsure if he wants to play international football for Ireland.

Any comparison with Jack Grealish will set some alarm bells ringing and O'Neill's early discussions have been conducted with the late-developing 24-year-old's agent.

His camp are understood to be encouraging their client to think carefully about his next move.

O'Neill has been given Hogan's phone number and intends to dial it for a discussion.

"I will do so," he asserted. "There's no point in rushing anything. I certainly do not want that. It was exactly the same with young lad at Aston Villa, Grealish; they make their own minds up but as long as you feel you've done what you consider the right thing for this association to try and bring someone around to do it; that's all you can do."

Is he good enough? A trip to watch Hogan score a hat-trick against Preston last weekend illustrated his qualities.

"He's a goalscorer, he will score goals," O'Neill replied. "When he gets a chance, you fancy him to put it away."

With Daryl Murphy, Jonathan Walters and the recalled Kevin Doyle all 33 and Shane Long turning 30 in January, it's a department that would benefit from fresh legs.

Rogers - who is on loan from Aberdeen - gets the nod after impressing in Scotland and the 22-year-old is preferred to older alternatives. David Forde is out of the equation while Dundalk's Gary Rogers misses out.

The midfield roster is crowded but Hourihane, a Corkman, has earned a call off the back of an impressive run as captain of Barnsley. He was named Championship Player of the Month for August.

Daryl Horgan was the other name on the agenda with O'Neill stressing that he would have included the Dundalk winger on the long list but sensed that the League of Ireland champions' crowded fixture schedule will be an issue.

Outstanding European displays against established internationals have brought the locally-based players into the discussion.

He asked a member of the FAI staff to give him a list of Dundalk's dates and intends to speak with Stephen Kenny on the matter. The Lilywhites will play a vital league match with Sligo Rovers between the two matches.

It is unlikely that any new caps will be in consideration for the qualifiers, but O'Neill had floated the idea of bringing Dundalk players into training in September.

Due to their ongoing commitments, November seems a more likely window for that.

O'Neill's focus is immediate, though, and the news that James McCarthy might return to full training with Everton next week is a welcome development.

In this gig, he knows that he can never plan too far ahead.

Martin O'Neill on...

Conor Hourihane

I have spoken to him. He is a very nice footballer. We have had him watched. Roy saw him not so long ago.

The time he did see him play he actually came back and said it probably wasn’t his best game, which I think Conor agreed with.

But he can definitely play and he seems to have taken more responsibility on the field too.

Daryl Horgan

He has done exceptionally well, as have a number of Dundalk players. In normal circumstances, he would have been in the provisional squad – without a doubt. I will speak to Stephen Kenny. Their European schedule has entangled things.

Seamus Coleman's captaincy

I’ve seen this before. Some players who are quiet. . . Gareth Barry, for instance at Aston Villa, he was very quiet but led by example. He (Coleman) is a very, very important player.

Serbian reflections

I still feel it was a very good result as they will be challenging at the top of the group.

Considering we have a number of players who hadn’t played a lot of club football, such as Seamus Coleman and Jeff Hendrick, I’m delighted.

Time on the field with their clubs is very important and I think that showed in Serbia.

Ireland Squad

(For games v Georgia (October 6, Dublin) and Moldova (October 9, Chisinau)

Goalkeepers: Darren Randolph (West Ham United), Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), Danny Rogers (Falkirk - on loan from Aberdeen)

Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Cyrus Christie, Richard Keogh, Alex Pearce (all Derby) Paul McShane (Reading), John O'Shea (Sunderland), Shane Duffy (Brighton), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United), Marc Wilson (Bournemouth), Stephen Ward (Burnley)

Midfielders: Aiden McGeady (Preston - on loan from Everton), James McClean (West Brom), Glenn Whelan (Stoke), James McCarthy (Everton), Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Stephen Quinn (Reading), David Meyler (Hull City), Conor Hourihane (Barnsley), Harry Arter (Bournemouth), Eunan O'Kane (Leeds United), Stephen Gleeson (Birmingham City), Callum O'Dowda (Bristol City), Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan (both Norwich), Anthony Pilkington (Cardiff City), Jonathan Hayes (Aberdeen)

Forwards: Shane Long (Southampton), Daryl Murphy (Newcastle), Jonathan Walters (Stoke), Kevin Doyle (Colorado)

Irish Independent

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