'Do I fear the other teams in it? Absolutely... but we'll beat them' - Martin O'Neill
Martin O’Neill is adamant he will never have cause to doubt the character or the spirit of his Republic of Ireland players after they secured another victory in a must win game against Wales.
O’Neill, still slightly breathless from the surge of adrenaline that had followed the final whistle as he embraced his assistant Roy Keane, knows there is still much work to do, particularly if Ireland are drawn against Italy or Portugal in the play-offs, but he did not hold back in his praise for his team.
Under-pressure and in spite of mounting criticism back home, which has focused on everything from O’Neill’s tactics, to his player selection, to questions about whether Keane plays a useful role behind the scenes, Ireland delivered their best away performance of the campaign.
This was Wales’ first defeat in Cardiff for four years and it means the Irish will go into the draw for the play-offs next week. Whoever they draw, it will be tough, but over two legs, O’Neill will be quietly confident he can guide Ireland to their first World Cup for 16 years.
“I don’t think anybody would want to play us in the play-offs,” said O’Neill. “Do I fear the other teams in there? Absolutely, I fear every single one of them, but then we we’ll go out and beat them. That is what we always try to do.
“I think I speak for a lot of the nations left in for the play-offs, I don’t think anyone will want to play Italy or Portugal, but I’m delighted to be in them.
“Look, we still have a lot of work to do before we start to think about playing in the World Cup. It was really great tonight and to win in Wales, against a team that has had so much success recently, it really is fantastic.
“We may lack a few things, we know we do, but we also know that courage is not one of them. That is instilled in them, that is something we have always had. We have had some disappointments along the way, against Georgia and Serbia last month, but I always knew we would bounce back.
“Naturally, I’m delighted, the performance of the player was absolutely fantastic. We had to withstand a lot of pressure, as you’d expect.
“Wales put us under a lot of pressure, they asked a lot of questions as befits a side that has done so well in Cardiff. But we came through, there were some great performances, young Shane Duffy at the back and Ciaran Clark, but they were all fantastic.”
O’Neill does not generally like singling out individuals for praise, but he did reserve some for his goalscorer James McClean. Both men hail from County Derry, in Northern Ireland, and it was O’Neill who gave the winger his Premier League debut when they were at Sunderland together.
In turn, McClean has tended to play his best football under O’Neill and he has scored four goals in this qualification campaign, all of them away from home.
“He has been magnificent,” added O’Neill. “When you see him getting tired with 10 minutes to go, you know the rest of players must be really tired. His drive and determination has been a trademark for us and he has been so important.
“He might not have the same all round, total ability of someone like Gareth Bale, but he’s been brilliant for us. He has been the talisman for the team in this campaign.”
McClean added: “The fans were unbelievable. A lot of people ruled us out and didn't give us a chance tonight but we went there and showed character.
"I remember the ball coming across, there was a great dummy by Harry Arter and I was just thinking keep it down. When it hit the back of the net, there is no better feeling in football.”