Tuesday 23 January 2018

'At club level, I've lost players in the past' - Sombre O'Neill has no time for talk of Koeman spat

Everton boss will have to reopen communication lines after Coleman's horrific leg break
Paramedics attend to Seamus Coleman during the World Cup Qualifier in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Paramedics attend to Seamus Coleman during the World Cup Qualifier in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

Martin O'Neill is not one for journalists' alleged quips at the best of times, and certainly not at the worst. And having just acknowledged that his captain and Ireland's most accomplished player may be out of the rest of the World Cup campaign, he was in no mood for pithy observations on his strained relationship with Seamus Coleman's club boss, Ronald Koeman.

The Ireland manager has, he says, tried to thaw the frostiness with Ronald Koeman over recent weeks but the former Holland international refused to take his call, and has not returned it since. Who knows what his reaction to Coleman's horrific injury will be.

O'Neill's own reaction at the time of the incident says so much about Neil Taylor's awful lunge. While the Aviva was cheering referee Nicola Rizzoli's rising red card for the Wales wing-back, O'Neill was emphatically shaking his head, turning away from the scene and searching for the medics.

He may not have hurried to see the replays after the match, which might have assisted his post-match musings, but he didn't really need to, or want to. He knew his captain was seriously hurt.

Ironically, Coleman's injury could assist in cooling the relationship with Koeman, who will be desperately unhappy to lose the best right-back in the Premier League. The pair will have to talk to discuss the incident, Coleman's recovery, and the immediate plan for the next few days as they take advice from the medical experts available to both parties.

But before he returned to a dressing room he described as 'devastated', O'Neill was offered the 'final question' which must be a delight to any manager under such circumstances. He was in no mood for jokes though when asked if he would be looking forward to his next conversation with Koeman.

"Why would that be?'' O'Neill said. "This happens in the game, somebody's made a bad tackle on a player, and the player's lost. At club level, I've lost players in the past.

"Let me be clear, I asked to speak with Ronald a couple of weeks ago, and he refused to do so, which is fine, not a problem. But Seamus Coleman's injury can happen in the game."

Clearly despondent, with the image of Coleman's splintered right leg in his mind, knowing it is a career-threatener, O'Neill tried to convey the sense of loss to the Ireland squad. But it is the personal blow for a popular player that appeared to hit the Ireland coach hardest.

"His contribution is massive," he said. "He's had a big, big part to play in us getting to play in the Euros, his performance there, taking the captaincy on, he's a big presence around the place, I couldn't stress how much. His commitment to us, his drive and determination - all of those things will be badly missed.

"When I saw him holding his leg, it didn't look great, I admit. I was pretty shaken by it. Do you know what, to say I'm disappointed for the player is an understatement, I think it puts things in perspective tonight.

"Coleman has just been fantastic since I arrived here. His attitude has been strong, it's not just his attitude, it's his playing ability, his whole demeanour, everything about him. He has great character, he's a great captain as well, considering he's so quiet off the field. He will be badly missed by us and by his club. He was having the season of a lifetime."

All this came on a night when James McCarthy, normally the central figure in this uneasy arrangement with Everton and their manager, was withdrawn after feeling his hamstring in the warm-up.

McCarthy, who has had fitness issues on Ireland duty before, came back into the dressing room and complained of tightness in his troublesome hamstrings. He had trained once all week.

O'Neill, no doubt mindful of Koeman's position on previous occasions, took the obvious but tough decision to withdraw him. He already had nearly a whole team of players out before he had named his side.

Hull City's David Meyler has spent most of the Tigers' third Premier League season on the bench. His name was printed on the team sheet and at one point read out over the tannoy. Most of us had no idea he was starting until he appeared in the camera close-ups during the national anthem.

Meyler didn't have much more notice. The Cork midfielder was handed the news, the set-piece responsibilities - not to mention the small matter of helping to keep one of the world's best footballers under control - within minutes of the Irish team going into the tunnel.

This is an Ireland team without a Gareth Bale, and with a Roy Keane on the coaching staff, on the bench and not leading on the pitch. It is a team. Meyler's reaction, and his solid performance, sum up his squad's qualities for O'Neill.

"Some players had to step up," he said. "David Meyler stepped in with only seconds to think about the game. In his mind he'd settled for being on the bench, and the next thing he's coming in, told to get in and get changed.

"He had to change his mindset immediately, so well done to him for doing that. He would have been ready to come on at any given stage, but that was to start and he had very, very little time.

"James came in and said he was feeling it (his hamstring), and I wasn't taking any chances. I was prepared to start him on the training he'd done, I think he's been excellent for us, and I'd liked him to have started but once he felt it at all, I wasn't doing it."

Taylor's dismissal opened up a game which an under-strength Ireland would happily have seen out to a draw at that stage. Aiden McGeady's late introduction so nearly brought an Ireland victory. If only he had been on 68 minutes earlier, but with a number of key personnel absent, Ireland were happy with a point.

Although Serbia have edged ahead on goal difference and Austria are catching up, it keeps Wales at arm's length. Crucially, although it could have been worse for him, Bale is suspended for his country's visit to Serbia in June. Who knows what the Ireland squad will look like after the week O'Neill has just endured.

The loss of Coleman is clearly a blow, but Ireland will be stronger as a unit on the night they play Austria at the Aviva, with the likes of Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan, Harry Arter, James McCarthy, Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy presumably returning to the ranks.

Quips, awkwardness, jokes aside, O'Neill was briefly able to assess the group before heading to see his captain in hospital.

Serbia's convincing win in Tbilisi has put them on top of the group with five games remaining. They are at home to Bale-less Wales in Belgrade for the final qualifier of the season, which is the same night Ireland face Austria at the Aviva.

The campaign re-starts in September with a trip to Georgia before the Serbs come to Dublin. It ends with the October double-header, home to Moldova and a final trip to Cardiff.

Ireland remain unbeaten but with just seven goals in the 'F' column, are the lowest goalscorers among the four contenders. And at the halfway stage, as he predicted on the day the draw was made, O'Neill is convinced there remain four contenders.

"It will go right to the end, absolutely," he said. "Austria have put themselves back in it again, Serbia, as I said at the very beginning after the Belgrade game, anyone who finishes in front of them will probably win the group.

"Wales will not consider themselves out of it, they haven't gained any ground on us, but we've still to go to them. And we might, Seamus apart, be stronger in June. I don't know that. But the likes of young Brady might have been missed tonight."

Defender John O'Shea added: 'With the type of injuries and suspensions we have had to deal with for this Welsh game - even in the warm-up, when we lost James McCarthy - despite all those issues, we have still managed to get good results in this campaign.

"If we get a win against Austria - and we will be going all out for that - then that puts us into a great position coming into the final laps of the race.

"If you had have given us this position at the start of the group a lot of people would have taken it. You want to win your home games and that is what we have to do to make sure we qualify for Russia."

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