| 15.2°C Dublin

O'Neill looks for calm to create another happy ending


Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill speaking to the press ahead of their UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifer Group D game against Scotland

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill speaking to the press ahead of their UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifer Group D game against Scotland


Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill speaking to the press ahead of their UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifer Group D game against Scotland

A year has passed since Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane were appointed to bring the good times back to Irish football.

If they can secure a positive result in Glasgow tonight to round it off, then the record books will show that it has been a success.

The chaos won't matter then, even if the build-up to yet another match has been dominated by the latest travails of the high-profile sidekick.

O'Neill knew that turning to Keane would bring attention, but he could never have envisaged the extent to which his tenure would be taken over by discussion of his assistant as opposed to the players they put out on the field.

From the Celtic speculation which enveloped the four summer internationals to his subsequent Aston Villa diversion and the autobiography release that generated a frenzy before Gibraltar and Germany, the focus has centred on a man whose job title indicates that he should be a step back from the limelight.

It is never that straightforward and, on his Celtic Park return, the initial emotion for O'Neill was weariness at having to go down a familiar road.

"I made a statement earlier on and there's not really much more I can talk about," he said, before dismissing a query on whether Keane had seen fit to speak to the players about the incident in the team hotel on Wednesday.

"Why would he do that?" he responded. " No. He spoke to me, that's all that's mattered, and I don't think Robbie Keane (sitting next to O'Neill) as captain was particularly interested in hearing what happened."

The fear in these instances is that players lose their focus. But the manager is certain there will be no issue.


For encouragement, he can cite precedent. During the book storm in October, there was a school of thought which argued that the fuss would distract the Irish squad.

What followed was a week which culminated with the best qualifying result in recent history when John O'Shea popped up at the death to shock the world champions.

On that epic Gelsenkirchen evening, this group illustrated they are capable of blocking out the noise, and they will have to draw on those attributes again to prepare for a blood and thunder affair which will test their discipline and concentration.

O'Neill carved his reputation from the art of getting match-day motivation just right and it's his job to ensure that the players are in the right frame of mind to produce the goods against a confident Scotland side that will enjoy the majority of vocal support inside this famous old stadium - although the natives might be underestimating the amount of travelling fans who have grabbed hold of tickets.

The Derry man could have done without more Keane shenanigans, but the real setback which landed on his table yesterday was the news that both James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan would miss this evening's festivities. Whelan was always a long-shot but McCarthy - whose absence will put the booing spotlight solely on Aiden McGeady - appeared to have a chance throughout the week.

His energy and, crucially, his ability to perform with composure in a full-blooded affair, will be sorely missed.

Again, O'Neill must look to Germany for inspiration and motivation. The comeback effort in the final half-hour was executed without Whelan and McCarthy, his first-choice midfielders, and subs Darron Gibson and Jeff Hendrick came to the fore during impressive cameos.

Wes Hoolahan's link play also contributed to the period of pressure that culminated with O'Shea's leveller and, ironically enough, the injured Norwich playmaker might have been suited to the flow of a contest which should leave more holes defensively than your average European Championship qualifier.

With Scotland expected to go with two wingers in the form of Shaun Maloney and Ikechi Anya, with Steven Naismith deployed in the hole behind Steven Fletcher, O'Neill must decide whether to try and match up with a similar strategy.

McGeady was used as the 'No 10' in Germany, an experiment that didn't really work, and the 28-year-old said earlier this week that he would be surprised if there was a repeat appearance. But the industry of James McClean and Jon Walters in wide roles is respected by O'Neill.

The former came in for glowing praise, with his ex-Sunderland boss noting a growing maturity when his recent letter explaining his poppy stance was raised in passing.

"I see a little change in him," mused O'Neill. "I think he has definitely matured with a little bit of age, while he retains a great zest for the game that you see in training every day. It's pleasing to see him doing so well for us."

Walters comes into this match in good form after a good spell at Stoke and he was switched inside for the dying minutes in Gelsenkirchen.

It's not inconceivable that O'Neill could use Walters as support for his captain Keane, with McGeady shifted to the right.

That would leave a choice of two from three in the middle between Gibson, Hendrick and Stephen Quinn.

All three can expect to play a part across the duration, with O'Neill acknowledging that Gibson's lack of match practice is a worry.

"We can't do anything about that," he said. "It'll always be the case that we'll have one or two not involved at club level. If chosen, he'll know what to do."

Age will certainly not count against Hendrick, and the manager's words dropped a strong hint that the 22-year-old will get the nod.

"The experienced players might still have a nervousness about them," he argued. "Sometimes in games like this, remarkably, the young players step through it, dismiss nerves and fly through it."

Scotland are strong in the engine-room, with Scott Brown and James Morrison giving them a solid base, and Ireland need subtlety in this department, in addition to the positional nous that will allow Seamus Coleman to bomb forward from right-full.

The Everton star might well be the best player on the pitch, but it's hard for a full-back to affect a game on his own unless others are doing their job.

O'Neill's charges must also seek to utilise their top scorer's attributes. In the away games to date, Keane has been starved of real chances. A scattered dogfight might allow him to find the aforementioned gaps.

Defensively, the loss of Marc Wilson is unwelcome, and Richard Keogh is tipped to partner John O'Shea. "Whoever plays, John will have to guide him through and help," said O'Neill.

This is a night where he expects big characters to come to the fore. Naturally, the locals were keen to ask the former Hoops boss about the significance of coming back to Paradise.

He planned a walk around after his press conference to bring back old memories.

Come tomorrow evening, the focus will shift to whether his players know where they are going. And if they can bring the spirit of Tbilisi and Gelsenkirchen to this encounter, they can take at least a point and enter the long winter break allowing themselves the occasional thought about the prospect of France in the summer of 2016.

That's one distraction that everyone will be happy to talk about.

Verdict: Scotland 1 Ireland 1

Irish Independent