Friday 28 April 2017

'We don't have a Gareth Bale but we can win in other ways' - O'Neill

Ireland boss Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland boss Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Damian Spellman

Martin O'Neill will head into 2017 confident that the Republic of Ireland's dreams are safe in the hands of a new generation of national heroes.

Ireland end the current year sitting proudly at the top of World Cup qualification Group D ahead of Serbia and Wales and having enhanced their reputation with a more than creditable showing at the Euro 2016 finals, where they emerged from the group stage courtesy of a famous victory over Italy.

They will face an almighty battle to hang on to their lead in the new year and secure a trip to Russia during the summer of 2018, but manager O'Neill is confident that, as well as their famed resilience, there is more substance to his team with the likes of Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick having taken up the baton from Shay Given, John O'Shea and Robbie Keane.

He told FAI TV: "Do you know, it really doesn't bother me what people will say about the side. I do believe that we do have resilience in the team - I think the number of goals that we have scored late on in matches in the last couple of years kind of proves it, that we keep going to the end.

"We lack certain things - it would be common knowledge to say a natural goalscorer - in our team. You're probably fed up of me saying it, but a 27-year-old Robbie Keane might have made all the difference in the world out there. Unfortunately, I didn't have him in his pomp.

"[But] this side here, instead of regressing, it has at least stabilised itself and I think has grown in confidence. You see Jeff Hendrick's performances, you see Robbie [Brady], you see these people, the improvement at international level. They feel as if they belong there now and that's good, that's great.

"That's the thing - we don't have a Gareth Bale in our team who can turn matches, but we have to find other ways to win matches and the players, so far, have come up big when it matters."

If Brady and Hendrick showed in France that they have what it takes to perform at the highest level, Coleman has been no less impressive in his transformation from studious full-back to Keane's successor as captain.

O'Neill said: "Sometimes when you take over the captaincy, your own form suffers a little bit because you are concerned about the effect you are having on other people.

"I know this myself - I was captain of Northern Ireland for half my time as a player. In the early parts, you are worried about your influence. You are hoping you are going to be a really good influence and sometimes your own play can suffer a little bit. Seamus' play has actually been enhanced as captain, if it's anything to go by at both club and national level."

As he looks back on 2016, there is much with which to be pleased with last month's 1-0 qualifier victory in Austria, which was secured by James McClean's strike, the most recent cause for celebration.

However, one moment stands out above all, the 85th-minute Brady header which secured a 1-0 win in the do-or-die clash with the Italians in Lille which sent Ireland into a last-16 clash with hosts France.

O'Neill said: "I think it would be hard to beat Brady's header [against Italy], it would be really hard to beat that.

"McClean's goal in Austria was a nice moment as well, simply because it's a different competition. There have been some good moments, but if you are asking me overall, that's as nice a moment as any."

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