Tuesday 24 October 2017

Martin O'Neill: Long-term vision could shape Euro 2016 plans

Martin O’Neill
Martin O’Neill

Daniel Mc'Donnell

The relaxed pace of discussions about a new contract have left Martin O'Neill open to questions about whether he really wants to extend his stay as Ireland manager beyond this summer's European Championships.

But, towards the end of his press duties on a visit to the headquarters of FAI sponsors Celtic Pure in Monaghan, the 63-year-old delivered an answer which indicated that his eyes are indeed focused on the longer term.

He has consistently stressed that he will use next month's friendly double-header with Switzerland and Slovakia as an opportunity to give a chance to players such as Harry Arter and Alan Judge who are trying to force their way into his plans for France.

"There are absolutely places up for grabs," he asserted. "I'm getting to a stage now where I'm trying to prepare mentally and physically for players getting right for France."

However, in a week where he was part of the League of Ireland launch, it was a routine request for a comment about Richie Towell's struggle to break through at Brighton that drew an interesting response.

"Maybe his breakthrough time is around the corner," asserted O'Neill who had joked with the player at an end-of-year awards ceremony that he wouldn't be going down to Brighton to see reserve matches.

"In fact, I wouldn't rule someone of that ilk out at this minute. In fact, there's a possibility that for one of the two games, I would bring someone like that into the squad, at least to have them around and maybe even participate in one of the games."

That will provide hope for Towell and also to a player like Chris Forrester who could qualify as being in that ilk given he is a recent departure from the domestic game.

O'Neill is conscious that the World Cup tilt, which kicks off in September with a tricky trip to Serbia, will creep up on a squad that is approaching a transitional phase.

"I think in terms of the development of the side, there's a couple of issues there," he acknowledged. "I think this would probably be the last hurrah for some of the players. They've got to the stage now where they've had a big, big effort. I'm sure they possibly thought after Poland way back four years ago that might have been the last shot.

"Here now they've got another shot and it's great to see that they've put their heart and soul into it but there's a group of players there getting on a bit."

He didn't mention names, but Robbie Keane and John O'Shea immediately spring to mind.

"Now there's the matter of trying to replace them," he continued. "You'd be looking to bring a couple of younger players in so that in September time you'd have some players ready - I mean they won't have that experience - but ready to go and play international football and try to get a result immediately."

France is the focus of the year and most of the queries he will encounter between now and June will focus on the decisions he faces in picking a 23-man squad and the strengths and weaknesses of Sweden, Belgium and Italy.


But he might be conscious that the last two Ireland managers to have qualified for major tournaments - Mick McCarthy and Giovanni Trapattoni - both suffered an autumn hangover which left them either out of a job or on the ropes. In other words, there is a need to plan for what's coming down the tracks.

Still, the vagaries of football management have taught him to enjoy the good times and, refreshed after a holiday break which included a trip to the Super Bowl, the Derryman was in sprightly form. When he read his morning newspaper to learn of Michael O'Neill's new terms with Northern Ireland, he realised contract chat would be on his media agenda.

"I thought, 'Whoa, I'd better start thinking about it'. So genuinely it is not a bother to me because I am still contracted at this minute, up until at least the end of the Italian game," he said.

"It (quick resolution) has never been an issue for me. If it means there's a continuity of something or you feel you deserve it then fine. If my health is alright, and hopefully I'm alright, then it has never been an issue for me.

"The FAI put some faith in me in terms of me coming and trying to do the job and I think that that's obviously very important to me.

"They thought that we could make it and obviously we've done so. When you've done that part of it; there's great euphoria, particularly the Germany game and obviously the qualification but you then put that to the side and don't live on that forever.

"For me, I must admit that as we approached the Bosnia game and talking to the backroom staff about the two matches, I thought after the game in Dublin it's either going to be the best six months of my life - when I can sit down and have a fag - or this is just going to be really, really bad. And I must admit, once we got through, with the little bit of time we have, then I thought, 'Ah it's not so bad not being a club manager'. It's been really good. I would never have got to San Francisco, you know?"

His travelling companion for the American trip was Roy Keane and, like O'Neill, he has occasionally spoken about missing the cut and thrust of club duty. He is also keen to become the main decision-maker again too.

O'Neill was about to get up from his chair when the subject of his assistant was mentioned so he gave a brief reply. "I think he's got an open mind to everything at this moment," he said.

After the high-pressure stakes of the autumn, the 'dream team' are now in the comfortable position where time is on their side.

Irish Independent

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