Monday 21 May 2018

Upbeat O'Neill rallies the troops: 'We will win the next two games'

Martin O’Neill following defeat to Serbia
Martin O’Neill following defeat to Serbia

Colin Young

Before he can lift a nation and his team, before he faces a fresh week of interrogation, criticism and scrutiny, and before he goes through another 180 minutes of futile gestures, screaming and frustration from his technical area, Martin O'Neill admitted he must lift himself.

"I take all these things to heart and I have done ever since I was 19," the Ireland manager said. "I was always last out of the dressing room, even as a player, and it is no different for me as I've got a lot older. But I'm ready, ready, seriously ready for next month. And if I'm ready, then the players have to take their lead from me.

"I've told the players the negativity is all about me at the end of it all. I'm the one responsible for the side, I'm the one responsible for all things, whatever, and so good or bad, that's part of the game. It has always been part of my life, both as a player and a manager for a long, long time.

"The players knew how difficult the game was in Georgia and if that was at the start of the tournament and if someone had said to me, 'You'll start the tournament off by getting a result in Georgia', I'd have taken it.

"The disappointment was the way in which we played in Georgia. We didn't play well, particularly in the first half of the game but they tried to rectify it against Serbia and in my eyes they did too. Now we have to win the last two games. That's the be all and end all."

O'Neill's attempts to lift spirits started before he left the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night for the few days of soul-searching and self-loathing over the two opportunities lost against Georgia and Serbia.

So he was deliberately, some might say unusually, ebullient before he left the dressing-room to face the round of media interviews, sowing the first seeds of positivity among his players to convince them Russia is still in their hands, their sights and their capabilities.

He was at it again before he closed the door of the media room and headed to the exits. His final message was clear and it was deliberate. "We will win," he said. "We will win the next two games."

Of course it will need more than an uncharacteristic amount of tub-thumping and enthusiasm from O'Neill to deliver a result against a Welsh side buoyed by their last two results and which will hope to have talismanic Gareth Bale in full flow.

But as he and Roy Keane prepare to clock up the miles to Premier League and Championship games for three weeks, the reality is that the squad selected for Tbilisi and the Serbia defeat will remain unchanged, with the exception of a fit-again Jeff Hendrick. Declan Rice is not ready, James McCarthy is not fit, or playing, and Scott Hogan is only just registered.

The last time Ireland needed to win a qualifier was the Euro 2016 play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina across three days in November 2015. Little has changed.

In Zenica, for the 1-1 draw, O'Neill's starting XI was: Randolph, Coleman, Keogh, Clark, Ward, McCarthy, Whelan, Hendrick, Hoolahan, Brady, Murphy. Subs used: McClean, McGeady, Wilson.

In Dublin, where Ireland won 2-0 it was: Randolph, Coleman, Keogh, Clark, Brady, McCarthy, Whelan, Walters, Hoolahan, Hendrick, Murphy. Subs used: McClean, Long, O'Shea.

Two years on, O'Neill has virtually the same personnel to choose from, and in the case of Wes Hoolahan, Glenn Whelan and Jonathan Walters, players who are three of Ireland's more reliable and invaluable players, despite their advancing years. Hoolahan brings creativity, Whelan stability, and Walters work-rate, and, as he proved against Austria, the occasional goal. They also have 174 caps between them. O'Neill will also be hoping that more of his players can add some mileage to their legs before they face Moldova, without the suspended Robbie Brady and James McClean. Shane Long may only have had two notable chances in the previous two games, including an ambitious long-range drive against Serbia, but it can be no surprise that he lacked sharpness in and around the penalty area. They were his first starts of the new season.

As he headed back to Southampton, having become only the fourth Ireland striker to win 75 caps, Long was optimistic he will get game-time under new manager Mauricio Pellegrino, who has so far only used him as a substitute.

"It was a nice getaway for me," said Long. "It has been a little bit frustrating for me at club level and it was good to come in here and really get away from that and focus on playing, getting 185-190 minutes under my belt.

"I felt it towards the last 20 minutes of the last game. I won't lie. But you lose sharpness when you are not playing I suppose, the reading of the game and obviously fitness.

"It catches up on you. We had two tough games with all the travelling and everything adds up. But I came in here with a goal in mind and felt I did ok over the two games. Hopefully I can just kick on and get a bit of form at club level and be flying the next time we come in.

"It was tough coming in and playing two games, but hopefully I can go back and push for my place. I am getting more involved, in the third game against Huddersfield I came on for 30 minutes and hopefully I can build on that and get a run of form going.

"It feels like the new manager is giving me a chance. It has been frustrating, I was playing out on the wing in pre-season but I am a striker. I will try to do a job out there but I want to play up front so I will go back to my club now and hopefully get a bit of form to bring it into the next few games.

"We know we have to do a job. Against Georgia, I don't think anybody had a brilliant performance but it was weird. We still had the best chances and didn't capitalise on that. Against Serbia, everybody was exceptional. It's just frustrating we lost the game.

"We were in the same situation for the Euros qualifiers when we drew with Scotland at home and everybody thought we were out of it. I think we thrive on that a little bit. We know we have to perform and if we get six points I think that should be enough. But we're Irish. We never do it easy."

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