Sunday 4 December 2016

'There is a great resilience about our team': O'Neill hails Ireland as Boys in Green take big step towards World Cup

Published 12/11/2016 | 20:30

Martin O'Neill paid tribute to the desire of James McClean after he shrugged off a back problem to fire the winning goal in Austria this evening.

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The Ireland boss had spoken before the game about the possibility of the Derryman becoming a talismanic figure in the World Cup qualifying race after his crucial brace in Moldova last month.

However, the 28-year-old was a major doubt for the Group D encounter at Ernst Happel Stadium because of a setback he picked up doing fitness work last weekend.

He overcame his own pain to inflict it on Austria and take a giant step towards the 2018 World Cup in Russia. O'Neill is proud of McClean, a player he knows well from their time together at Sunderland.

"McClean was brilliant tonight, he scored a great, great goal," said O'Neill,  "If the game had been on Tuesday he couldn't have played but that speaks volumes for him, the medical staff got him back on the field and I'm delighted for everyone.

"He's got a great old attitude. When I first worked with James, I saw someone who had a great desire. At the ripe old age of 28, he's improving.

 "He loves playing for us which is very important. He's as proud as anything now. The very fact is, I know I've said he wouldn't have been fit for Tuesday. Knowing McClean he would have tried to declare himself fit. He's been excellent for us and he's really proven his worth."

O'Neill stressed that he could have picked any number of players out for praise after the most significant Ireland away win since the 1987 victory over Scotland - the last time Ireland took three points from the home of a higher ranked opponent.

David Meyler and Harry Arter formed an unlikely midfield partnership in the reshuffle after Glenn Whelan was lost to injury midway through the first half.

O'Neill felt Arter grew into the match after a ropey start and joked that his competitive debut ends the possibility of the Bournemouth player being called up by England - nonsensical rumours surfaced last month which made that a story around the wins over Georgia and Moldova. "That puts that to bed now," laughed O'Neill, "It's the great news story of tonight."

Meyler rose to the occasion after replacing Whelan.

"I thought Meyler was excellent, " said the manager. "Sometimes when you come on as a sub it takes you a length of time to get into the game itself and maybe for 15-20 minutes it might pass you by. Meyler made sure he didn't do that."

Ten points from a possible 12 leaves Ireland in a strong position with four of their remaining six games at home. O'Neill stressed that it was still early days, but feels the strength of character that has dragged his group through a challenging autumn will stand to them in the long run.

"It was nice to see it through tonight," he asserted, "They had a chance in the very last minute (a Marc Janko header from close range) and that would have been a real disappointment.

"There is a great resilience about our team, a great strength of character about this side. I couldn't be any more pleased with this team."

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