O'Neill wants Ireland players 'bursting with enthusiasm'
Attracting new recruits and boosting FIFA rankings the main goals ahead of campaign for Euro 2016
TO paraphrase a popular festive warning, international football is for life -- not just for Christmas.
That's certainly the mantra that Martin O'Neill adheres to as he settles into the peculiarity of a Yuletide period without direct managerial responsibility. He will go to a match on St Stephen's Day in a watching brief, the role that he's been confined to since the Ireland squad's return from Poland and the second part of his opening double-header as manager.
The scouting has allowed him to have a look at players who may qualify for Ireland (Nathan Redmond), players who are eligible, but have no interest because they are waiting for a call from England (Mark Noble) and a player who has already played, but has yet to definitely indicate he wants to come back (Stephen Ireland).
O'Neill made a conscious decision to wait until the new year before approaching individuals with a view to expanding the range of options at his disposal, although when it comes to this delicate issue, he would like an indication from the players that they would welcome his call.
"I'd like the players to have some enthusiasm about wanting to do it," said O'Neill, summing up his bottom line view on the overall topic.
"I might glean that from other sources and I probably would do, but eventually when I get to talk to the player, I'd like him to be bursting with enthusiasm. If he isn't well I can say, 'That's the end.' I might have to do a bit of persuading, but if I'm having to do an awful lot of persuading, I'm not wildly sure it's worth it."
Asked if the same principles applied to Stoke midfielder Ireland, who has been out of international football since 2007, O'Neill was clear. "Absolutely, absolutely," he replied, before adding that the Cobh man was only a sub when he ventured to watch him, whereas assistant Roy Keane witnessed a full outing. "The game I went to, it was hard for me to make an assessment. Of course I listen to what Roy has to say, but I haven't made communication with him at the moment."
The talented midfielder had his own granny issues which contributed significantly to his exile. With others who have slipped under the radar to this point, or deliberately chosen to hide from it, the situation is a tad more complex. On a fruitless trip to Norwich to see the benched Wes Hoolahan, O'Neill had a look at ex-Birmingham midfielder Redmond, yet further investigation is required to ascertain if the 19-year-old is fully qualified.
These chases tend to throw up red herrings; Liverpool's Jon Flanagan does not have a recent enough family connection, while Noble and Sunderland striker Connor Wickham have restated that their wish is to represent England.
Still, O'Neill, who lined out for Northern Ireland next to English-born performers such as Chris Nicholl, feels it would be wrong not to explore every avenue.
"Jack (Charlton) used them to his advantage and in those days I don't think anyone complained because the Republic hadn't any real success in a long time and Jack brought success. If he brought success with Ray Houghton having a Scottish accent, who really cared?
"You talk about the ethics and the process of eligibility, if other countries are doing it and you felt because you had a stand on it, or didn't do it to your detriment I think people would probably pronounce you as rather foolish. I think I would have to use it if I thought someone within these rules might improve our team.
"If they're unable to get into someone else (another national team), I know it seems to cheapen it somewhere along the way. But at this minute, those are the rules and whether I like them or not, we don't have a phenomenal choice of player, so I will go with it. If their heart is seriously not really in it, I think you might be able to suss that relatively quickly."
The picture will clear up early in the new year. Ireland host Serbia on March 5 and will know their Euro 2016 qualifying fate by then with the draw taking place on February 23 in Nice.
O'Neill, who worked with a squad selected by Noel King in November, will take stock of several situations before naming his first panel. Richard Dunne appears to be in his thoughts with a trip to QPR scheduled tomorrow. Shay Given might yet come back into his thoughts. The 37-year-old retired after Euro 2012, but has hinted he would be open to a comeback and his temporary return to action at Middlesbrough has reminded people of his existence after a miserable spell in the wilderness at Aston Villa.
"I would not discount that at all," said O'Neill. "That is something that I certainly wouldn't rule out if I had a conversation and he was thinking about it."
Hoolahan is very much in O'Neill's plans, but he will not be encouraged to leave Norwich in January, especially as such proclamations from international managers used to infuriate the 61-year-old. "I don't want to be running around and telling Wes Hoolahan he should do this or do that. I certainly don't want Chris (Hughton) on the phone to say, 'What are you doing there?'
"Wes hasn't played regularly for Norwich for some time. But I thought Wes was excellent for us in the game against Latvia, really excellent. He did very well. Of course you would love players to be playing, but it doesn't mean that I wouldn't pick someone who has the ability, but hasn't played in four or five weeks."
Certainly, while O'Neill may not have to deliver any teamtalks over Christmas, he will have food for thought in his downtime. He had a chat recently with John Delaney about the dire drop in the FIFA world rankings to a lowly 67th.
From afar, he thought the list was meaningless. Now, he realises that it will have seeding implications for the 2018 World Cup draw. As it stands, Ireland would be fifth seeds if they don't improve their results between now and summer 2015 which means that the results of friendly matches are suddenly quite important to the FAI. Beating nations ranked higher is the primary way of making progress.
O'Neill, who was in good humour after a week of meeting and greeting, including a tour of the office in Abbotstown that he intends to use regularly, addressed the matter with a solo Q & A.
"Are you going to improve it by trying to win some football matches? Yes.
"Do I always want to take the easy option? I don't think so. Not necessarily.
"Do I want to get absolutely thrashed in some matches, with no confidence for the players? Not so sure I really want that either.
"Do I want to play somebody where we are going to win a game of no benefit to us? I've no idea. I will formulate an idea, but, at this minute, I didn't know it was as important as that.
"We are where we are. Do I want to try and improve it? Obviously."
There's a lot of work to do and a long time to wait before the real stuff starts. Sorting out the cast for the drama that lies ahead is the immediate priority.