Saturday 18 November 2017

Martin O'Neill: We're ready for the challenges ahead

Ireland boss backs McCarthy to 'dominate' Euro quest as he prepares for his latest battle

Martin O'Neill makes a point during a press conference
Martin O'Neill makes a point during a press conference

Garry Doyle

After eight months, seven games and worryingly just one win in the job, Martin O'Neill believes he is ready for the road ahead.

More to the point he feels that his team are ready – irrespective of the fact they have gone six games without a victory or that since Euro 2012 Ireland's sole victories, in friendly or competitive internationals, have come against teams ranked 61st, 69th, 91st, 103rd, 127th and 184th in the world.

A new season signals a new dawn and five weeks from now O'Neill will land in Tbilisi to begin a journey that will either take him to France and the finals of the 2016 European Championships or else to the dole queue – the fate that befell his predecessor when he bombed out of the World Cup and one that awaits almost every manager.

But he isn't worried. Results aside, the last eight months have energised him. The sideshows surrounding Roy Keane's on-off move to Celtic and eventual arrival at Aston Villa have ended and he's glad of the peace and quiet.

"Roy is going to be doing the same things for me now as he was before Aston Villa came in for him," said O'Neill.

"I don't think there will be any cross-over and I don't see a problem. The main thing will be having Roy here when the players are in. That is the main part of his job. I am more than happy."

He has every reason to be after a summer break in Brazil alerted him to the possibilities of underrated nations finding momentum and form.

"Costa Rica were great. So were Algeria. Would I have thought Costa Rica would have performed as brilliantly in the World Cup after we played them in Philadelphia? I'm not so sure.

"But when you get to a tournament, you can get on a roll and your confidence can rise. The problem often is getting there," O'Neill said.


And it has been a problem for Ireland since Mick McCarthy left office, with only one of the subsequent six qualifying tournaments going according to plan resulting in four Ireland managers, including McCarthy, losing their job.

So the pressure is on and, while Ireland's inability to beat Poland, Serbia, Turkey, Italy, Costa Rica or Portugal in their last six games is a concern, it isn't an issue which will make or break a man's reputation.

In any case, O'Neill firmly believes his side is coming to the boil. Relatively content with the squad at his disposal, he is also shopping around for some additional talent via the second-generation route.

"There are a number of things that we are looking at in the background, a number of players who have declared more than an interest in joining us, but until everything is solved, resolved and signed up, I would be reluctant to start mentioning a load of names."

Harry Kane, the Tottenham striker, is one name in the frame. Nathan Redmond, the Norwich winger, is another and consideration is also being given to Ipswich Town forward David McGoldrick and Chelsea starlet Patrick Bamford.

But it is another second-generation Irishman who has already declared for the Republic who O'Neill expects to make the biggest impact during his tenure.

"James McCarthy was pretty dominant throughout all of last season. Now he can push on again, and become a man who dominates games for Ireland," predicted O'Neill.

"If you ask any lad who is roughly his age – at 23, 24 or 25 – is that it or can you improve again? Then the answer has to be 'yes, I can improve'. James, absolutely, will get better. So, too, will James McClean. Even Aiden McGeady, who is that wee bit older, can improve. And if that all happens, we'll be in a good place."

While O'Neill remains on the look-out for new blood to add depth to his panel, two of the older faces on the scene – Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane – remain important to him.

"Maybe this is not the time to give a full report on how I plan to use Robbie throughout this campaign. But you have to remember, he is the one who scores the goals, the match-winner.

"And, okay, he is 34 years of age and is not getting any younger, but I am not in a position to turn anyone away.

"Robbie is a big part of our plans – as is Richard. Yes, he didn't play for me last season but I know him better than any player and felt it was right not to bring him for friendlies when QPR wanted him to get some rest.

"I know what Richard can do and after the seven friendlies I have a much better idea now of what all the players can do. The games we had were the right ones to learn from. Do I take encouragement from the result against Costa Rica?

"Well, I thought we did well for a half and thought they played better with 10 men than they did with 11.

"The bigger thing for me is that I know things now that I wouldn't have known before."

Essentially what he knows is that some players – Seamus Coleman, John O'Shea, McCarthy and Keane – are indispensable whereas almost everyone else can be shifted into positions within a system.

Yet, the failure of fringe players – like Keiren Westwood or Paul Green – to advance their careers with moves to bigger clubs this summer is a troubling issue which simply comes with the territory of international management.

"I am not in control of what happens to the players at their clubs. At this time of year especially there is a lot of transfer speculation.

"Suddenly, I have found myself looking at clubs where you have one or two players and wondering would the arrival of such-and-such affect some of our guys.

"Take what has happened at QPR with Richard Dunne. They win promotion and he gets a new contract. They also sign Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker.

"Does that mean Richard feels his position is in jeopardy? He might. But he has fought that all his life. He would relish the challenge.

"In my own personal experience, Nottingham Forest signed players every single year and I thought, 'gosh, he's close to my position'. But my reaction was to just go out and battle."

Three decades on, another battle is about to begin.

Irish Independent

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