Martin O'Neill: 'There are still big decisions to be made before we pick final squad'
Martin O’Neill has banked close to three decades as a professional manager but, even for him, the coming months represent unchartered territory.
On the eve of the Republic of Ireland’s friendly against Switzerland, which is followed by Tuesday’s encounter with Slovakia, O’Neill must now contemplate a wide variety of issues that could ultimately dictate the outcome of his first managerial foray at a major international tournament.
First and foremost, there’s selection. In all likelihood the Derry native has long since decided on up to 16 of the 23 he’ll take to France for the European Championships. So, in reality, 10 of the 33 players he has currently assembled, will play no part beyond the imminent ties.
Yet, he couldn’t be accused of not giving those on the fringes a fair crack of the whip, as evidenced by the inclusions of Jonny Hayes, Stephen Gleeson, Shane Duffy, Alan Judge, Matt Doherty and Jack Byrne. Although it would be of great surprise if Byrne got game time.
The former Celtic manger gave the impression today that, while he views these fixtures as an ample platform to shuffle his deck, he’s wary of unduly upsetting the dynamic that came together in the latter stages of the qualification campaign.
Indeed, he’s not relishing delivering bad news to those who fail to make the final cut, but claimed that they would be in line to feature during the World Cup qualification tilt, which may signal that he’s intending on extending his tenure.
“There will be a few difficult decisions to be made during the course of that time,” he said at the Aviva Stadium.
“Some players will be delighted to make the 23 and a few will be disappointed, but that’s a few weeks away. The idea here was to give a few players the opportunity, late and all as it may be, to try and stake a claim.
“For instance, let’s say one or two of them didn’t make it, they’ll know they could be right for the World Cup campaign coming up almost immediately, when one or two of the senior players, not including John (O’Shea), will be finishing.”
However, and it may have been for the ears of players who did not feature over the course of the last two years but have remained on the immediate periphery, O’Neill highlighted that they will have to conjure something significant to catch his eye.
He’s not necessarily looking for somebody able to seamlessly slot into the established system but, perhaps, an individual capable of turning the tide of a seemingly lost cause. Brentford’s playmaker Judge could fit that bill.
“I think they’d go hand in hand, but the latter might be one (moment of magic). I think if somebody comes and does really well, makes me think if he could be used, even if he doesn’t have that fantastic experience. Let’s be fair here; the players coming in late have a bit to do, I must admit.
“Everything would have to go pretty well for them individually but it’s not impossible. It’s happened before, and that’s why I’d like to open that door for them. And you have to consider that, over the next six or seven weeks, some the players that have been great might fall foul of injury."
O’Neill will select the side to face Switzerland tonight and intends to find a happy medium between the established operators and those with something to prove.
“We just wanted to finish the training today and I’ll sit down this evening with the backroom staff. I’ve said before that I want a few senior players starting in the game, but at least one will start (fringe) and we’ll use some during the course of the game.”
Shane Duffy and Rob Elliot have been confirmed as starters in at least one of the two games, while Judge should do likewise. Wolves’ Matt Doherty could be auditioned as a suitable option at left back; as a deputy to Stephen Ward, were O’Neill minded to use Robbie Brady in midfield again.
O’Neill is also cognisant of not unduly tipping his hand to those aiming to abbreviate Ireland’s summer plans, namely group opponents Italy, Belgium and Sweden, all of whom have sent scouts to Dublin.
A balance must be struck between ascertaining the best possible panel to launch a meaningful assault on the tournament, but without revealing any tactical shifts the management are mulling over.
Furthermore, O’Neill was adamant that Ireland will not fail in France based on a lack of knowledge of their opponents but, for now, all focus is on Switzerland and Slovakia.
“Closer to the finals (research). Sweden have representatives watching us here tomorrow night and on Tuesday night, and so have Italy and so have Belgium. Anything they would be covering from here on in, but not just that, but the qualification games.
“They might be trying to do some things in the friendly matches that they might not be looking to do in the course of the three games coming. In terms of preparation that is something we would certainly do, and when we come back again that’s what we’ll be doing; we’ll be DVD’d and video’d.
“And, honestly, if we get beaten by Sweden it won’t be because we don’t know the players. That I promise you.”