Open qualifying group paints brighter picture for Ireland
Ten days ago, Martin O'Neill sat in the small press room at Sligo Rovers' Showgrounds base and acknowledged that Ireland's World Cup 2018 campaign could end up being all about rebuilding.
With an ageing dressing room and an absence of obvious alternatives coming up through the ranks, there was a feeling that a lowly seeding would make the next couple of years a process of transition.
The FAI are never going to write a campaign off as they need to be competitive to keep punters coming to the Aviva Stadium, but with progression to Euro 2020 so important because of the co-hosting aspect, there was a case for being realistic about Russian expectations if Saturday's draw fell in line with its predecessors.
Then Wales came out of the hat as the top seeds in Ireland's group and the perspective changed in an instant. If it had been Germany or Spain, to pick the two most obvious examples, then a pool with an improving Austrian side that is Euros-bound and a Serbian operation that is sure to be boosted by the promotion of the U-20 world champions, then O'Neill and the rest of the Irish delegation would have travelled home with an understandable basis for feeling slightly despondent.
The Derryman had denied beforehand that the identity of the opponents for the next campaign would have any impact on whether he wanted to stay around depending on what happens in the conclusion of the Euros race this autumn.
He was never going to admit it in Russia - there's a danger of being disrespectful to Wales by expressing too much glee at their presence in the slot the Germans have filled in the last two qualifying groups - but the open-looking nature of Group D paints a slightly brighter picture of the road ahead.
The response from the dressing room will be interesting too. Senior citizens such as Shay Given (39), Robbie Keane (35), John O'Shea (34) and a host of players in their early thirties who came onto the scene a bit later might suddenly be looking three years down the line instead of one. The speculating could be groundless; Keane is no longer a guaranteed starter and he's hinted that making France would be a perfect swansong.
But with that prospect in doubt and a bit of unfinished World Cup business hanging over from an infamous Paris trip, there will be an understandable temptation for the older members of the current panel. All three higher-ranked teams appear to be on the upgrade, but there's nothing intimidating about their profile. In short, the senior pros may view it as the best route to the biggest stage that has ever been put in front of them. A stiff task, but not insurmountable.
"I hadn't thought about that," said O'Neill, when the player angle was put to him. By that stage, he was so frustrated by questions about his own future, an area he refused to go down, that he was unprepared for alternative subject matter. Besides, he is conscious that if he sticks around, he simply has to speed up the process of bringing through fresh blood.
"By the time it gets under way again, there's another year gone," he says. "Some players that are 33 now, they might say they're a year older ... but I think, again, that it's hopefully part of my job to see if we can get players a bit young into the squad who are capable of coping at that level and not only coping at it but relishing the challenge of it."
The confirmation of the fixture schedule yesterday, a centrally generated process tied in with the new TV deal, has effectively dealt Ireland with an identical programme to the current Euros campaign in terms of the timing of home and away fixtures.
It means three big trips in autumn 2016 with Serbia up first, defining Dublin games in March and June against Wales and Austria respectively and then a concluding showdown with the Welsh on the final day in November 2017. Like Poland this October, the challenge is to make it relevant.
"The fixtures we have been given are challenging with three of the first four matches away from home similar to the group we are in at the moment," said O'Neill, upon hearing the news. "However, we have to play everybody at some stage so let's look forward to it when the time comes."
His paymasters could reasonably describe the itinerary as challenging too, seeing as it means there will be just one competitive date at the Aviva in 2016 - the visit of Georgia in October. A note with the 2014 accounts explained that a solitary Dublin outing with Gibraltar affected revenue levels and a repeat is an unwelcome development. The flip side, of course, is the potential of a bumper 2017 but that is dependent on staying alive to that juncture.
It also emphasises the importance of upsetting the odds and making France or, at the very least, making a play-off. Friendlies are hard to sell these days so the prospect of finishing October's visit of Germany in the knowledge that it will be another 17 months before there's a meaningful game at the venue capable of generating a buzz is a sobering thought.
Presuming that he stays around himself, O'Neill knows it is necessary for a new brand of leaders to emerge even if the old guard contemplate prolonging their stay. Seamus Coleman will turn 28 in the first phase of the Russian race, and his Everton pal James McCarthy will be 26 that December.
"That's what you're hoping for," stressed O'Neill, when asked if this was their moment to come to the fore. "The more experience they get the better. They can only improve and a couple of other younger players will do too." Robbie Brady, who is moving closer to completing his switch to Norwich, will be a key face from the outset.
Austria and Serbia have a number of individuals in that age bracket that are heading in the right direction. Serbia have struggled badly of late, despite showing glimpses of quality when they won a friendly in Dublin last year. They are out of the Euros race already so they can use the next year to integrate members of their U-20 World Cup-winning squad into the fold.
Wales and Austria have France on their mind and will have to be conscious of the dreaded hangover that sometimes spills over into first matches after a major tournament.
Ireland would like to have that problem too, yet it will take a substantial effort to do so. All thoughts of Russia will have to banished to the back of the mind now that the details have been digested. With FIFA bringing Saturday's event at the opulent Konstantin Palace forward by five months from the old date, it's too early for fans to nail down travelling plans.
They might still have a big summer jaunt to plan in the meantime, if favours from elsewhere materialise this autumn. Whatever happens, Ireland will kick off in Belgrade in September 2016 believing that their fate lies firmly in their own hands.
The accountants may not immediately agree but, compared to the mission impossible scenarios that were available, fourth-seed status has presented a more inviting outcome than a second-seed billing in Nice at the start of last year.
Ireland's road to Russia
Group D: Wales, Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova, Georgia
Monday September 5, 2016: Serbia v IRELAND, 7.45
Thursday October 6, 2016: IRELAND v Georgia, 7.45
Sunday October 9, 2016: Moldova v IRELAND, 7.45
Saturday November 12, 2016: Austria v IRELAND, 5.00
Friday March 24, 2017: IRELAND v Wales, 7.45
Sunday June 11, 2017: IRELAND v Austria, 5.00
Saturday September 2, 2017: Georgia v IRELAND, 5.00
Tuesday September 5, 2017: IRELAND v Serbia, 7.45
Friday October 6, 2017: IRELAND v Moldova, 7.45
Monday October 9, 2017: Wales v IRELAND, 7.45
ALL TIMES IRISH
The lowdown on Ireland's Group D rivals
Manager: Chris Coleman
World Ranking: 10
Euro 2016 position: After taking four points from favourites Belgium, they are three points clear at the top of Group B. It would take a spectacular implosion for the Welsh to drop out of the running seeing as Andorra at home is one of their remaining fixtures.
Record v Ireland: Played 13 – Ireland 5 Wales 5 Draws 3
Last meeting: Friendly, Wales 0 Ireland 0, August 2013
Star player: Gareth Bale – The Real Madrid star has received some criticism in Spain, yet he can do no wrong in Welsh colours and possesses the ability to cause chaos. He has scored five of their eight goals in Euro 2016 qualifying so far.
Manager: Marcel Koller
World Ranking: 15
Euro 2016 position: It’s looking good for Austria after a big win in Russia left them four points clear at the top of Group G with four games remaining. Crucially, there’s an eight-point gap back to third so they’re almost over the line.
Record v Ireland: Played 14 – Ireland 2 Austria 9 Draws 3
Last meeting: World Cup 2014 Qualifier, Austria 1 Ireland 0, September 2013
Star player: David Alaba – Ireland don’t need to be educated about the versatile Bayern Munich star who scored a goal in each meeting of the 2014 campaign. Has plenty of freedom to attack as a midfielder with his country.
Manager: Radovan Curcic
World Ranking: 43
Euro 2016 position: Remarkably, the Serbs have a tally of -2. This is because they were deducted three points for crowd disturbances during their clash with Albania which was abandoned and written off as a 3-0 Serbia defeat. They drew one and lost three of their completed games.
Record v Ireland: Played 7 – Ireland 2 Serbia 3 Draws 2 (includes meetings with Federal Republic of Yugoslavia between 1992 and 2003)
Last meeting: Friendly, Ireland 1 Serbia 2, March 2014
Star player: Nemanja Matic – He’s an important cog in Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea wheel and his midfield steel should provide the base for the exciting players coming through the ranks. Matic dominated the friendly at Aviva last year.
Manager: Alexandru Curtianu
World Ranking: 124
Euro 2016 position: They sit bottom of Austria’s group with just two points from their six fixtures. A credible draw away to Russia was followed immediately by a home loss to Liechtenstein and they failed to beat the minnows in the return.
Record v Ireland: No previous meetings
Star player: Alexandru Epureanu – Turkey-based defender has spent the majority of his career in Russia and is a multiple winner of Moldova’s player of the year award. Their captain and leader.
Manager: Kakhaber Tskhadadze
World Ranking: 153
Euro 2016 position: After losing to Ireland on the opening day, performances deteriorated. With one win and five losses, they’re well out of it.
Record v Ireland: Played 6 – Ireland 6 Georgia 0 Draws 0
Last Meeting: Euro 2016 Qualifier, Georgia 1 Ireland 2, September 2014
Star player: Jano Ananidze – The Spartak Moscow player caused Ireland a few problems in Tbilisi last year and he can develop into an even more important operator by the time this campaign comes around.