Saturday 24 February 2018

Motorway scrape glossed over as O'Neill steers ship towards Saturday

Martin O’Neill speaks to the media in Malahide yesterday
Martin O’Neill speaks to the media in Malahide yesterday
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"Ever feel like you're in a soap opera, Martin?"

The Irish manager smiles at the question.

"It's all a bit of fun," he replies, after a deliberate pause.

That's one definition of the interesting build-up to Saturday's crunch Euro 2016 date with Scotland.

Tuesday was pencilled in as the day off and, thankfully, it was a quiet day for the players.

In the outside world, it was chaos as usual as the Scottish FA's chief executive Stewart Regan and Jose Mourinho ridiculed the FAI, political figures called for the halving of John Delaney's salary and Roy Keane's Range Rover, in which O'Neill was a passenger, was rear-ended on the M50. Nobody was hurt.

"I'm alive and unfortunately for you I'm going to stay alive," said O'Neill, who could probably do without being rolled out to face the press every second day. "I'm ok, genuinely. They tell me these things take a bit of time so I'll tell you in two years time."

The young driver that smashed into Keane's personal vehicle had more reason to be stressed by the whole incident as his car was written off in spectacularly high profile circumstances.

Still, worse things happen at sea. O'Neill has some examples fresh in his mind as he was actually returning from a trip to Keane's native Cobh when the accident happened. The jaunt included a visit to the Titanic Experience museum.

"We went to the museum and it was really good," said the Irish boss, veering into a history chat about Fr Frank Browne who disembarked from the Titanic in Cobh (then Queenstown). His photos of the first leg of the ship's journey from Southampton to Queenstown form the centre of the Cobh museum's exhibition.

This was a beautiful diversion from the subject matter of the week although, of course, any discussion of the Titanic lends itself easily to analogies about good ship Ireland and the choppy waters that may lie ahead. It's too predictable.

Happily, all seems to be well inside the camp with O'Neill's main men in good health heading into the weekend. Harry Arter and Paul McShane are doubts but they would not expect to be contending for a starting berth.

The protracted build-up has allowed the Irish management and players to muse the implications of the various outcomes.

In the aftermath of the draw with Poland in March, it was declared as a must-win encounter; O'Neill has slightly modified his stance, playing the never say never card, but his basic point is unchanged.

"Of course it's very important absolutely. If Scotland beat us then there's a gap of five points and with four games left, that might be hard to pull back particularly if Poland and Germany have won," he stressed.

"Let us not minimise the importance of the game. But do I think that if we win the game that's it, all guns blazing? Not at all, we've games to negotiate. And if there's a draw does that mean it's the status quo?

"No, advantage Scotland still because they've now played us and that particular challenge is gone. So it's up to us to win."

It would be a different story if Ireland had managed to hold out at Celtic Park. A promising start to this tough group was undone by the late concession to Shaun Maloney's short corner.

Ireland's team for the Aviva meeting will be stronger, but their homework will include a reminder of that frenetic night.

"There will be parts of the game, just to refresh ourselves," said the 63-year-old Irish manager. "They're probably sick of seeing it but little moments in the game, we can condense it into 15, 20 minutes. It can do no harm."

The second half display against the Poles offers a template for what O'Neill wants - a purposeful collective effort.

"If we could start like that, just get ourselves going and try and get that first goal rather than chasing things. Yes, that will give us a chance," he said.

Like all pre-match pronouncements, that wish can be filed in the easier said than done category.

It explains why O'Neill was content enough to chat about the Titanic, the Lusitania or anything else that represented a break from the run-of-the-mill match chat.

In an ideal world, the time for talking would be over. In reality, there's 48 hours left to go.

Irish Independent

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