Sport Soccer

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Video: O'Neill 'exhilarated' by perfect opening night

MARTIN O'NEILL hailed a rejuvenated James McClean and the inventive Aiden McGeady as his reign in the Irish hot seat kicked off in winning fashion.

It was all smiles on the sideline as O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane enjoyed the comfortable 3-0 dismissal of a poor Latvian side, with goals from Robbie Keane, McGeady and sub Shane Long securing the victory. The new boss said he was "exhilarated" by his team's display in front of a satisfied crowd of 37,100 at the Aviva Stadium.

McClean, who came to prominence under O'Neill at Sunderland, earned the man of the match award after a power-packed contribution and the manager agreed with that decision.

"I thought his performance was excellent," said O'Neill (above). "He might play the wrong ball once or twice, but his desire to attack tonight was really evident. He was rejuvenated, played with a lot of confidence – and he knows I've got confidence in him."

McGeady, who scored only his third Irish goal, also came in for praise, although he was gently reminded by O'Neill that he could learn from McClean in one aspect of his game.

"I said to him in the dressing-room: 'You haven't scored in 27 matches' and he said it was 47," joked the 61-year-old. "I think he's pleased with the goal and pleased with his input. He's got things to do of course – sometimes when we lose the ball Aiden decides he will walk back, unlike McClean, but we'll forgive him that."

The manager also had kind words for Wes Hoolahan, who was deployed behind Keane on a night when Ireland dominated possession, completing 91pc of their passes. However, O'Neill admitted that the quality of the opposition made it easier to dictate the play.

"There will maybe be other nights where we'll have to play second fiddle in possession," he warned. "The most important thing is that I wanted the players to go and play. We talked about pressing high up the field.

"The reason I was doing that is that I wanted to get the crowd on our side and I thought doing that would be better for players like Hoolahan (right).

"The first goal was very important for us but once we got that I thought we played a little too much in front of them without causing them problems. But when we started getting into them again, pressing and passing with a good tempo, we were terrific."

O'Neill, who added that his players have really taken to working with Keane on the training ground, also received good news from Greece, where a win for the locals over Romania means that Ireland will be second seeds for the Euro 2016 qualifiers, although he admitted that "there's still plenty of work to do" regardless of Ireland's seeding.

The only sour note of the new manager's big day came when he learned that his successor at Sunderland, Paolo Di Canio, had angrily hit back at the 61-year-old's suggestion that he was a managerial charlatan and repeated criticisms of the squad he inherited from O'Neill at the Stadium of Light – specifically in relation to their fitness.

"A charlatan is a manager who spends £40m to be a top-10 club and then sees the club sink into the relegation zone," said Di Canio. "The fact he (O'Neill) spoke after six months, not straight away, proves what kind of level he is. He is not very big."

Unsurprisingly, O'Neill disputed the accuracy of the Italian's observations, although he refused to delve into the matter in detail. "It's hardly worth replying," he said. "I don't think Sunderland would concur with his £40m statement."

Daniel McDonnell

Irish Independent

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