Monday 19 February 2018

'We will be a thorn' claims Martin O'Neill in spite of no pot luck

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, with Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, left, and Poland manager Adam Nawalka, at the end of the UEFA EURO Final Tournament Draw
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, with Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, left, and Poland manager Adam Nawalka, at the end of the UEFA EURO Final Tournament Draw

Dion Fanning

As Martin O'Neill broke away from a group of journalists and headed towards another in Le Palais des Congres last night, one reporter wanted to pick at the wound that was the draw. "Is this the group of death?" he shouted in O'Neill's general direction.

There is always one, in every sense, but while O'Neill admitted to some disappointment, he only had to look for Michael O'Neill to consider how much worse it could be. "I've seen Michael O'Neill being carried out on a stretcher," he said.

Martin O'Neill admitted to some feelings of disappointment too, but pointed out that none of Ireland's opponents would have wanted his side as their pot four pick.

Ireland will have to deal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in an opening game which will be critical, while Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and others will be waiting when they meet Belgium, before a tough final game against Italy.

The recent history of Irish football has been so scarring that it may have been inevitable that the draw would bring up some bad memories. But maybe not so many bad memories.

Ireland may feel they have nothing to fear from Sweden, who they will play in Paris on June 13, but they could have done without being drawn against the top ranked team in the world, as well as Italy who, O'Neill insisted, should have been in pot one.

During the final unravelling of Giovanni Trapattoni's time as Ireland manager, Sweden came to Dublin and won, while Italy had been part of the misery at the last European Championships, although by then anyone would have beaten an Irish team whose spirit had been broken.

Ireland haven't met Belgium since a wet night in Brussels in 1997 when they beat Mick McCarthy's side in a World Cup play-off.

The Belgian coach Marc Wilmots was part of that side, but the current generation promises much. They failed to deliver on that promise during the last World Cup but still reached the quarter-finals, so it was an adequate sort of failure.

Italy are not what they were, but they will represent a formidable obstacle, particularly as the final game of a group which could be critical for them, as they play Belgium in their opening game, something Wilmots wasn't pleased about last night.

Italy's coach Antonio Conte appeared to think his side has been drawn against Northern Ireland but he will surely be on top of things before the countries meet in Lille. "Have you put him straight?" O'Neill asked and, when he was told that he hadn't been, responded, "Oh, I'd like to tell him."

O'Neill sat at the front of the auditorium in Le Palais des Congres, alongside his assistant Roy Keane, while John Delaney and his partner Emma English were beside them. Their reaction to the draw was not recorded.

O'Neill had been pictured with the trophy beforehand, but he refused to touch it, a superstition which may seem presumptuous but which also underlines the ambition of Ireland's management team.

They may have to scale them back. Ireland are in Group E which, because of the complications of a 24-team tournament, is seen as a harder pool to win the tournament from. Ireland will be happy if they have those problems. Finishing third and qualifying could lead to a last 16 game against Spain or France.

O'Neill wondered if teams would be as daring as countries were at the World Cup. One victory might be enough to get a side out of its group, but Ireland will wonder where the win will come from in their group.

Yesterday evening revealed the exciting detail, the where, the when and the who, but the past two days in Paris have confirmed that the organisers and the country will have to wrestle with a more difficult question, 'How?'.

The presence of police snipers in the auditorium last night was a reminder of what the country and the tournament next summer will be facing from now on.

Crowds wandered by the Bataclan yesterday morning as they have every day since the terrorist attacks a month ago. They laid flowers outside the theatre where 90 people were murdered, but the shrine is a reminder that nothing about the European Championships will be straightforward from a security point of view.

Paris hasn't seemed like a city in lockdown this weekend, but there are the occasional reminders. It's customary to say security at Le Palais des Congres was tight, but that manifested itself mainly in a search of three compartments in a laptop bag instead of the usual one when people are in a more relaxed state.

The security men guarding the entrance to the shopping mall below the auditorium did ask me to open my coat to ensure I wasn't wearing a suicide belt, and it is momentarily alarming to stumble upon police with machine guns at random spots around the city, but these things can quickly become normal, another demonstration that we can get used to anything.

In the days following the attacks, it seemed hard to imagine that a tournament could take place next summer with a final held in the stadium which had been attacked.

On Friday, the president of the organising committee, Jacques Lambert, talked of how the security planning would intensify now that the authorities were done with the conference on climate change. Uefa didn't reveal too many details, but even if they had details, they may have been minded not to talk about them.

Tournaments are becoming so expensive for hosts that many countries are reluctant to bid for them. The next Euros will be scattered around the continent, and Uefa will need this competition to be safe, even if it is beyond them, or anybody, to provide guarantees.

The only thing that is certain is that the tournament will be played with many people afraid or, at least, anxious, while simultaneously determined to enjoy the experience.

In the coming months, the organisers will announce more details, including the cost of extra security, but they had other issues to deal with this weekend which are more trivial than life and death.

They have their own question still to answer, namely who will be their president by the time the tournament arrives next summer. There was a time when Michel Platini would have hoped that if he was no longer leading the organisation in the summer of 2016, it would be because he had moved on to ruling the world, or at least that part of it controlled by Fifa.

Instead Platini may be exiled if he is banned "for several years", as a spokesman for Fifa's ethics committee said he would be.

His provisional suspension had been confirmed on Friday, which prevented him from being involved in all "football-related" activities, including yesterday's draw.

There are times when a draw stretches the understanding of football-related activity so maybe Platini could have his ban lifted for those bits, allowed on stage for a while so he could banter in several languages with Ruud Gullit, before members of the ethics committee would come on to lead Platini away.

Unfortunately, the ban was absolute so, despite protestations of loyalty from Lambert on Friday, the president of Uefa had to stay away.

Platini did appear on the big screen as one of the players who had scored a goal which was part of European Championship history, and he was the only one during that montage to be greeted with applause in the auditorium.

On Friday, Lambert and Uefa's general secretary Gianni Infantino had to deal with rumours that Platini was, in fact, in Paris. His wife had been seen picking up her accreditation, and he had been spotted at the Shangri-La hotel.

"I don't know where Michel Platini is," Infantino said. "I didn't see him at the Shangri-La hotel. How should I know everyone who is in the Shangri-La hotel?" Even in these days when high standards of corporate governance are expected, Infantino had a point. He couldn't count everyone in and out of the Shangri-La hotel and, frankly, it's below his pay grade.

Infantino had other things to consider last night as he conducted the draw.

O'Neil gave the sense that he would wait until after Christmas before considering the possibilities from that draw. The qualifiers and play-off games had provided Ireland with plenty of reasons to be hopeful. Four years ago, Ireland found out how quickly things can come to an end. It should be better this time. "I think the others might consider us a thorn anyway," he said. Ireland have some reasons to believe, even if there are always things to worry about too.

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