O'Neill braced for real 'group of death'
Ireland manager challenges his players to secure top spot because runners-up not guaranteed play-off
During one of the many spells of downtime in France last month, a casual conversation between Martin O'Neill and some of his stalwarts strayed into that often uncomfortable but inevitable topic of life after playing.
The coaching badge ladder essential for progression in the modern game has already started for a few of the Ireland veterans, conscious of the need be certified if an opportunity to transition from their principal vocation arises.
It was a discussion which O'Neill could empathise with; a crossroads he encountered himself all of 30 years ago as time became the enemy during the twilight of his career.
Coaching is territory his veterans of the Euros, Robbie Keane, Shay Given and John O'Shea, have spoken of entering into but that doesn't necessarily entail the cut and thrust of being the boss.
Though coaching and management are regularly confused, the players were left in doubt from O'Neill's input that clear lines of demarcation exist.
Keane and O'Shea experienced it first-hand during the Euro 2016 campaign in absorbing the bombshell of being told to sit on the bench in favour of superior options.
O'Shea axing was part of a cull designed to rescue Ireland from elimination at the group stage of the tournament against Italy. Despite few sharing his opinion beforehand, the manager's roll of the dice was vindicated in Lille. It's one of the reasons why O'Neill is perfectly within his rights to keep the FAI waiting to sign his new contract.
"I was speaking to a group of the older players and I think they maybe look at management and say, 'Wow, maybe I'll stay clear of that and maybe go into coaching'," reasoned O'Neill.
"I know that players felt coaching was something that they might fall into because maybe you don't have the ultimate responsibility and therefore you have to make less decisions.
"I would encourage players to do that but eventually not everybody can be a coach. If you look at statistics, 11 players from each team have to be narrowed that down when they retire.
"Then there are only so many jobs left and I think that if you can get in some place your reputation as a player will last about, let's say, a minute and a half.
"Just because you have been a fantastic player does not mean that, firstly, you become a naturally brilliant coach or manager and, secondly, you might get that opportunity."
Based upon his outlook of the World Cup campaign looming, further decisions laced with risk are certain.
O'Neill called it straight yesterday in challenging his players to achieve a feat not seen since the European Championships of 1988 by topping their group.
It wasn't a rallying cry to surpass the last campaign, rather a route he believes to be the sole avenue for reaching Russia in 2018 due to the calibre of opposition and a format much more demanding than the Euros tilt.
From the nine pools, all but one runner-up is guaranteed a play-off and O'Neill fears Group D could be squeezed when the business end arrives in 14 months' time.
"I genuinely think that the winners of our group might be the one with the least amount of points," he emphasises.
"There's no rule to say you can't top the group with 11 points but it won't happen. I just think the teams will beat each other because I feel our group is going to be exceptionally difficult - exceptionally difficult.
"We've got Serbia first away in September, a team with some really top players. Austria had high expectations at the Euros and, though they didn't do well, they will be kicking themselves. Their players won't have changed and neither will their ability. They will be ready.
"We don't play Wales until next year but they've got a world-class player in Gareth Bale. I think Georgia will improve again under their new manager who has got them going and Moldova won't be easy either. Teams will take points off each other. If you could give me points against Moldova now, I would take them and head off to the Bahamas."
The message for Ireland fans is clear: this campaign is already shaping up to be a slog. Fixture schedules are no longer agreed by delegates around the table and the new centralised system has once again irked O'Neill.
"Three of our first four games are away from home and I don't know how that has come about," he lamented. "You don't want to be out of the competition before you're in it."
In the final analysis, it was Georgia's defeat of Scotland which proved definitive in sealing third place for Ireland on the trail to France.
Such is the competitive nature of this pool that results elsewhere promise to have a bearing on this outcome too, especially if the trips to Serbia and Austria this side of Christmas don't go to plan.
Fortunately for Ireland, two of Serbia's mainstays are suspended for the campaign. Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov carry over bans from their failed Euro campaign and while that was welcome news to O'Neill yesterday, the element of surprise about his own suspension troubles wasn't so well received.
Shane Duffy's dismissal against hosts France rules him out of the fixture, unbeknown to his manager till yesterday. "Would that (ban) not be for the next Euros?" O'Neill questioned before being corrected.
Whether Duffy, Robbie Brady or Jeff Hendrick are Premier League players when the squad assemble in four weeks is unknown but their international manager doesn't intend interfering.
The trio are all currently attracting interest, increasing the likelihood of transfer activity in the coming weeks.
"I'm not surprised there's interest in Robbie and Jeff but those things will sort themselves out at club level," he said.
"These lads are very young and I think they will go on to prove themselves at club level.
"Of course if they end up playing in the big league that's great, but it's a not a concern for me because they have shown what they can do at international level and it should be a platform for them to push on regardless of what happens at club level."
Proof that inaction can be just as effective as action in management.