Saturday 26 May 2018

O'Neill turns eyes to start of another adventure

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The transfer window has closed. Robbie Keane's long goodbye is over.

This morning, the Ireland players return to the training ground with an instruction from Martin O'Neill that they should only have Serbia on their mind.

He can understand the distractions that affected some members of the group. Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Eunan O'Kane (Leeds) and Aiden McGeady (Preston) completed deals on Wednesday with the latter staying behind in the team hotel to process the paperwork of his season-long loan while the rest of the group headed for the Aviva Stadium.

That game was the Keane show, with Oman not fit for purpose as a dress rehearsal for Serbia. In polite terms, the manager admitted as much. The exercise was about giving out-of-practice individuals some time on the pitch while managing all the other events of the day.

"Tonight was getting Robbie's thing out of the way as it was his night," said O'Neill in the immediate aftermath.

"The second thing is the transfer deadline, but I'm not the only one in that position as there are other international managers who had to let players go for the same thing. But there is a feeling now that, tomorrow morning, when I wake up, Serbia is the total concentration."

Two years ago, another routine dismissal of Oman was followed by a campaign-opening trip to Georgia which yielded a valuable three points.

How far have Ireland come in the intervening period? O'Neill mulled over the question.

The stars of the Euros, Robbie Brady and Hendrick, were only peripheral squad members at that point, and it's hard to imagine them missing out on any games in the World Cup campaign unless injury or suspension strikes. There hasn't been a radical overhaul in terms of personnel, but he feels the experience of a successful Euros campaign has instigated improvement.

And, in his opinion, that belief should be visible when they jog out to a ferocious atmosphere in Belgrade.

"Are we in better shape? We should be," he says. "I'm not talking about physically but mentally we should be with some of the games we've gone through.

"Listen at the end of the day, during that campaign we have taken four points off Germany, the world champions. We've had to fight against Bosnia to get through and we've had some big, big matches and over the 12 games we have come through that.

"There is a bit of strength coming through that and I actually think that somewhere along the way in those matches we had in France, I actually think that strength of knowing that we beat Germany and came through against Bosnia (was a help).

"We did fine out there and if we had a couple of more days (to recover) I honestly feel we could have beaten France. But that is gone now, that is tournament football where things like that can happen. We're now back into qualification mode and getting your head around that."

Aside from three of the opening four matches being on the road again, it promises to be a different type of campaign because of the contrast between European Championships and World Cup qualification.

"Separate entities," says O'Neill, "What I feel about this group is that the natural differences are that to qualify you need to win the group.

"Two can do it - one via a play-off - but what I think about this group is that teams would take points off each other - whereas with Germany, you always felt they would top the group and you would be fighting for second or third.


"This group now, my own view is, will be the one that will be won by the team with the least number of points (compared to other groups). Moldova will take points off teams too. From that viewpoint, while you will never be clear, you would hopefully get some points on the board early on to give yourself a chance.

"So that is how I feel about it but, as I said, I have got a wee bit more experience around. Some of the players have got a wee bit more confidence about their game now, so that should help but sometimes confidence is temporary. It can erode very quickly."

O'Neill stressed that he didn't mean that statement to sound negative. "I'm looking forward to it immensely," he said.

His next task is to ensure that he has the right mix of experience and enthusiasm for the challenge that Serbia will present.

The confirmed loss of James McCarthy (left) to a groin issue has opened up a vacancy in midfield from the Euros.

McCarthy did report for duty but knew that something was niggling away at him.

"There was a possibility of a wee bit of transfer talk about him, maybe on loan," said O'Neill, hinting at possible problems for the Glaswegian when he recovers from a short lay-off.

"Eventually my doctor was speaking to the people at Everton and they really wanted him back. They all felt, let's get this (surgery) done and clear this up."

In the key Euros games with Italy and France, McCarthy was suited by the sitting role in front of the back four. Glenn Whelan is the natural replacement in that department.

The new option in the centre of the park, perhaps in a more advanced role, is Harry Arter who did get 90 minutes against Oman in his continued mission to make up for the frustration of missed opportunities.

"He did fine in the game," said O'Neill. "I think, naturally, with James not playing now, then we will look at it. Harry needed a wee bit of time, the same as Stephen Quinn who has not played much for Reading so we will see what will happen in the next couple of days."

At the back, O'Neill indicated that John O'Shea is on course to be available but Seamus Coleman has work to do.

"John is going to be okay. He is fine," he said. "He did some work on Tuesday at Sunderland and then came in. So he is fine but just needed a wee bit more time.

"Seamus has trained on his own, at the moment, (with the physios) and is improving all the time and it would be great if he was available."

Further up the park, the two-goal effort from Jonathan Walters illustrated that he appears to be in good health again. Daryl Murphy - an unused sub on Wednesday - was selected next to Shane Long for the second half of the Euros but Walters' availability might relegate the Newcastle recruit to the bench.

Wes Hoolahan's contribution might revolve around the deployment of his Norwich colleague Robbie Brady who can function at left-back or in a midfield diamond.

"I feel there are two positions he can play equally as well," said O'Neill. "I feel he can see a lot of the game coming from a left-back position and that's fine and I wouldn't have a problem playing him there which he has done.

"And if we moved him into the middle of the field in games and had Stephen Ward at left-back who has always done well for me, I'm sure I wouldn't have a problem. Is there one that he feels best in? Do you know what, I think that varies and it varies with confidence."

It can sometimes depend on the Irish approach too. October's double-header at home to Georgia and away to Moldova are a pair of fixtures that Ireland will be expected to win.

Coming away from Belgrade with a point would be a perfectly respectable start to another long-haul campaign.

After a ceremonial start to this gathering, the game faces should be on now.

Online Editors

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