O'Neill glad to avoid winter of discontent
Irish boss admits home clashes with rivals will be decisive
Published 18/11/2016 | 02:30
The long, dark winter days are upon us but unlike the situation Ireland found themselves in two years ago as the Euro 2016 qualifying group neared the halfway point, there is a beacon of light that promises plenty more to come from this group of players.
Defeat to Scotland in the final qualifier of 2014 left a sour taste and left Ireland's participation at the Euros in jeopardy and although they managed to turn it around brilliantly, there is a different feel to this World C up qualifying campaign.
Not that anyone is getting ahead of themselves, particularly Martin O'Neill, but there is no doubting the fact that there is a feel-good factor around Irish soccer at the moment.
O'Neill continues to have the Midas touch and he has developed what is largely a similar squad into a more mature and mentally stronger group.
There has been no real secret to Ireland's success. The hard work and dedication of old is still at the fulcrum but at times there is a more subtle approach to their play which was best summed up by James McClean's stunning goal in Vienna last weekend.
Seamus Coleman has taken on the captaincy duties and has looked every bit the leader the country hoped he would one day be. Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick continue to prove that they belong on the international stage, while the once-erratic McClean is now one of the first names on the team-sheet.
"I'm not saying we've a Gareth Bale, but a lot of good players with a very strong attitude, and that's great, and who want to play, and I think that's really lovely as well," O'Neill said.
"McClean, Brady, Hendrick, those boys epitomise that. Coleman has been fantastic, absolutely fantastic.
"He's risen to the occasion in terms of the captaincy and taken it on like you would not believe. If he walked through the door now? You'd hardly get a word out of him. But on the field? Just brilliant."
O'Neill has openly admitted that 10 points from a possible 12 has exceeded his expectations from the start of the qualifying campaign but his side sit top of Group D on merit and will do so for at least the next four months.
With Wales and Austria to come in Dublin in the next two games, O'Neill will have a clearer picture of where his side are come the night of June 11.
"It's early yet," O'Neill insisted. "It depends on what happens here (Aviva Stadium) in 2017. It's nice to have a couple of extra points that you maybe weren't anticipating from those matches away from home. But whatever happens here, in the next two games, become really important.
"It (2014) was a very long winter but you always knew about that when you took on a role at international level. You just know the results in November, when you don't have a game until March, it is going to be very tough.
"Any international manager who loses a game in November will tell you that, absolutely. It's a long wait. Christmas is pretty poor, you are waiting around. Not for one minute was my spirit lessened in that sense. Perhaps even more so against Scotland here. But it's a long wait."
Ireland lead Group D without yet hitting the heights that they did in France during the summer and while O'Neill maintains that it is difficult to compare tournament football to a lengthy qualifying campaign, he realises that it does show that his players still have more to offer.
"I probably wouldn't disagree in that sense," O'Neill concurred. "We have shown great durability and a lot of tenacity and a bit of strength of character. We played in Moldova without Hendrick and Brady.
"Now if you had said to me the night after we had played against Italy, can you cast your mind forward to a World Cup qualifying game away from home against anyone, it doesn't matter, and you won't have those two players, I would have thought we'd be in a bit of trouble.
"Any game we have had in this qualification group, you look at the players who have missed out. We've had to make do with other situations. The day where we have everybody available is a day that won't exist. To try and draw the difference between tournament football and its immediacy, to go from one game to not playing for another four months and not knowing who is going to be available to you, only knowing regardless of anything Robbie Brady isn't, that's my view."
One player who may yet be in the squad for that crucial clash against Wales on March 24 is Scott Hogan. O'Neill has closely monitored the English-born Brentford striker's progress in the Championship and yesterday the manager revealed that he is due to hold talks with the 24-year-old.
"We'll certainly look at that. We certainly have the opportunity now coming up to Christmas and slightly after that, and the agent did say to me, that he would want to have a conversation so I would hopefully have that at one stage or another."
A long wait lies ahead for O'Neill until his side return to action in March but despite sitting more comfortably than he did two years ago, he won't fully put his feet up until Ireland finish the job.
Martin O'Neill was speaking at the launch of Spar FAI Primary School 5s Programme for which registration closes on February 17
Martin O'Neill on . . .
Wes Hoolahan becoming an automatic starter
"There are certain things that you do need at top-class football and for the most part, you need a bit of physical strength. Sometimes you might think that Wes can be a bit fragile in the sense of that. He's a really fine player, absolutely but I've played him in a lot of games. Wes is coming up to 35 years of age. I have to see how long he can last in games. There's matches where you think, will you start Wes because it would be great to get going or do you think he could make an impact in a tight game?"
James McClean maturing as a player
"A cautionary note about McClean. Remember that great time when he was stepping onto the pitch against, was it Poland? And even Roy had said to him - Roy, of all people - be careful. And he said, 'I am, I am, I will be, I will be, I will be'. And then the Polish boy's legs were over the stand. I take all the jokes aside, he's definitely matured both on and off the field. He's taken himself off a few of those things (social media). It doesn't stop him having the occasional argument with the Derry City manager which I am in total agreement with him. But overall it's great. And do you know what? He feels as if he is a big player for us now which is very, very important."