Ireland defender calls for Martin O'Neill to be given new contract regardless of how Group D finishes up
Stephen Ward has called for Martin O’Neill to be offered a new contract to continue as Republic of Ireland manager, even if he fails to secure qualification for next summer’s World Cup finals.
In an exclusive interview with Independent.ie ahead of next Friday’s Group D qualifier against Moldova in Dublin, the Burnley defender has given a glowing endorsement for O’Neill to remain in his position as he prepares for what could conceivably be his final home international as Ireland boss.
Wins against Moldova and in Wales are the only results that will keep Ireland’s fading hopes of booking a place in Russia 2018 alive, with O’Neill’s future certain to come under scrutiny if he fails to snatch a play-off spot in his second qualifying campaign as Ireland boss.
Now Ward has fired the starting gun on the campaign to keep the former Celtic manager at the helm of the national team, in a debate that may dominate the Irish sporting agenda in the next few weeks.
“Of course we want the manager to stay,” declared Ward, who has been one of the first names on O’Neill’s team-sheet during his four-year tenure as Ireland boss.
“He has been brilliant since he came in and no one should be thinking what will happen if we don’t come through this qualifying group. You look at what we did at the Euros and since he has been in charge and this manager has done a fantastic job.
“Hopefully we can reward him by getting these two big results and we would fancy ourselves against anyone in the play-offs.”
Ireland assistant boss Roy Keane will be a leading contender to succeed 65-year-old O’Neill if he decides to call time on his tenure as the FAI’s highest profile employee in the coming weeks, yet the appointment of the firebrand Ireland captain would divide opinion.
Eamon Dunphy has been among those suggesting Keane is little more than a celebrity cheerleader in the current Ireland set-up, with his high profile press conference appearances his most visible contribution to the Ireland cause.
Yet Ward argues Keane is much more than a tough talking mascot, as he believes the former Manchester United skipper could have a role to play in Ireland’s future.
“He brings an unbelievable amount of experience to the group and ask anyone in that Ireland team who their heroes were growing up, they will all include Roy Keane in the list,” continues Ward.
“People have an opinion about Roy, but my experience has been all positive with him in the Ireland set-up and people saying anything else probably don’t know what he does behind closed doors.
“First of all, he is a massive inspiration and from my experience, he has been great around the squad as well. Listening to a guy who has that much experience and who has operated at the highest level of the game has to help.
“There is not as lot of coaching required at international level because we are working with top players and coaches every day at our clubs, so having a winner like Roy around rubs off on the players.
“In the two Euro 2016 qualifiers against Germany, especially, he was inspirational. We went out onto that pitch without any fear and Roy was one of the main reasons for that after what he said in the dressing room before the game.
“He is a legend in the game and it has been great to have a guy like that around the squad. What we see a players is a guy who wants Ireland’s to succeed I would say he has been a great presence around our squad.”