'Had he been fit, I think we may have made it to the World Cup' - Martin O'Neill hails return of Seamus Coleman
MARTIN O'NEILL has hailed the return of Seamus Coleman and suggested that Ireland would have qualified for the World Cup if their captain had been available.
But he has admitted that the biggest challenge Ireland face going forward is finding a striking replacement for Robbie Keane.
Coleman will make his Ireland comeback tomorrow in a friendly with Turkey in Antalya and he joined his manager on stage at this afternoon's pre-match press conference.
The Derryman was effusive in his praise of the Everton right back.
"I sometimes think he doesn't know himself how influential he is, not only in the dressing room but on the field of play which is the main part," said O'Neill.
"I think it almost goes without saying that we missed him. Had he been fit, I think we may have made it, who knows. He would have given us a much better opportunity.
"I've said to him, and I'd rather say it when hes not in the room, he's an absolutely world class player. And you talk about someone with a leg break getting back, I reiterate that when we saw him in the hospital the first few nights and was really down, you felt with his determination he would get through. That's just his character.
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"We as a group are delighted to have him back, the players are and the management team very much so. If he can stay clear from injury, who knows what lies in store for him in the next couple of years."
The 29-year-old stressed again that he never any concerns about his long term future on the comeback from the horror injury he suffered a year ago this week against Wales.
"That never crossed my mind from day one or any way through the injury," he said, "I knew if I did everything I was told and the work I needed to do in the gym, that I'd be back in the football pitch. I never doubted for a second that I'd get back playing football."
Coleman has encouraged the new faces in Turkey to seize the opportunity with strikers Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan desperate to get an opportunity with retirements opening up spaces in the squad.
O'Neill acknowledged that the absence of a goalscorer is a concern but said that it will be hard for any player to emulate the achievements of record breaking Keane.
"To replace Robbie Keane and the number of goals he scored, that's a tough task for anyone," he said. "And of the three forwards we have at this moment, Shane Long has much more experience at international level than the other two and he's participating at a higher level.
"I don't think that's going to faze either Hogan or young Maguire. I think they feel up to it and feel given an opportunity they can turn any chances we make into goals.
"I think they are quietly confident about that but to ask them to end up with the career and number of goals that Robbie Keane did, that's tough going for anyone, never mind those young lads."