Sunday 19 February 2017

O'Neill recognises genuine resilience in late Irish heroics

Miiguel Delaney

Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill with Minister for Sport Shane Ross. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill with Minister for Sport Shane Ross. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Martin O'Neill says the biggest challenge he and Roy Keane faced on taking the Irish job in 2013 was lifting the spirit of the squad after the disappointment of Giovanni Trapattoni's last two years, but feels that the number of late goals the team have scored proves a rare resilience has been instilled.

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In O'Neill's 20 competitive games so far, Ireland have scored a total of six game-changing goals after the 80th minute, including three in stoppage time. The manager put that down to the unique commitment of his players. While still very complimentary of Trapattoni, the manager said he and assistant manager Keane initially found a group of players who were "down" and in need of a lift.

"The most important thing that I felt - and Roy would agree with this - was the spirit was a little bit down, obviously, because the disappointment of the [2014] World Cup campaign, following on from the matches in Poland [at Euro 2012], but I still looked at it and thought, 'That was an achievement to get to Poland'," O'Neill said.

"And you are talking about an excellent manager [Trapattoni], who has proven himself for years and years and years, and things had started to unravel a little bit in that sense. So maybe it was a matter of trying to boost confidence again and seeing what the players were doing, and trying to introduce a wee bit of new blood. The most important thing is to get players to believe they can win football matches."

That belief has been reflected by the series of key late goals in matches such as Georgia away (90th minute), Poland home (90), Germany away (90), Bosnia and Herzegovina away (82), Italy in Lille (85), and Serbia away (80). It marks a considerable change from the last two decades, when Ireland developed a tendency to concede late goals.

"Here is my view on it," O'Neill stated. "Let's say you score a late goal once over the course of 10 games. I don't think you can look deeply at that. However, if you have done it six times - and we have, against Georgia, Poland, Germany - and while I am not a big stats man, I think you would have to believe it. They were really important goals, not scoring a fourth in the 83rd minute against Gibraltar, I am talking about matches where goals meant so much to us, either getting us a point, or getting us the winner, so I think there is more to it. I think the team has a really genuine resilience, best shown by fighting back in Serbia, when we conceded the penalty and players thought, 'Ah you know, it is just a bad night for us'. The Euros was still in their mind but that point has become really important."

Ireland now sit on top of World Cup qualification Group D after the 1-0 win away to Austria, making it almost a pity that the next game - at home to Wales - is not for four months. O'Neill says he will use the time to scout potential new call-ups.

"You're always looking for that," he adds. "It is four months until the Wales game and that gives me a bit of time to have a look. We are not just totally engrossed now with the first team - which you know a great deal about. Now is the time to go and look at some younger players."

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