Saturday 20 January 2018

Unticked box throws open possibility of awkward situation for FAI if things go badly

Martin O’Neill answers questions at yesterday’s press conference in Abbotstown. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill answers questions at yesterday’s press conference in Abbotstown. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The Abbotstown desk which housed Martin O'Neill for his pre-Moldova press conference was covered by an FAI advertisement carrying the message, 'Now is the time'.

It ended up taking on a different meaning as the day progressed.

That slogan was part of a ticket-sales drive placing an optimistic slant on where Ireland's World Cup ambitions stand.

If O'Neill's men fall short of their six-point target in this window, or worse still achieve it and miss out on a play-off because of results going against them in other groups, then the post-mortem will reach the conclusion that September was actually the time.

When discussion turned to the implications for the manager's future, the Derryman gave the firmest indication yet that he wanted to stay on as Ireland manager and the FAI were on the same page but he added, 'I don't think today is the day to discuss it.'

That strategy had shifted by early evening when the FAI announced via their own social media channels that a deal had been agreed with a clip of O'Neill saying as much attached. It later emerged that Roy Keane and the rest of the backroom staff have also agreed in principle to stick around for the Euro 2020 bid.

"I spoke to John (Delaney, FAI CEO) very recently and he said on behalf of the board they would like to extend my contract for another couple of years with the Euros coming up and I've agreed to do so," he said.

The FAI's eagerness to get the news out brings back memories of the announcement of his previous contract extension ahead of Euro 2016.

O'Neill had not actually signed on the dotted line when that missive went out and it's a case of history repeating here.

Clearly, the FAI are happy they have the right man and they are satisfied that the relationship with the 65-year-old is such that a verbal agreement is binding - even if they haven't thrashed out the terms and conditions.

That unticked box throws open the possibility of an awkward situation if things go badly over the next week.

The developments have overshadowed tonight's game with Moldova which should be the easy part of a complicated conclusion with the results in other groups a factor.

A niggling fear lingers that six points from Moldova and Monday's game in Cardiff will not be enough for a play-off because of the dropped points last month.

If Wales are incapable of winning in their Tbilisi test this evening, their position will be even bleaker.

Ireland have a job to do to dismiss the group's worst side. In sharpening the minds, it's natural that O'Neill will focus on the matches away to Austria and at home to Wales where the minnows kept the game scoreless for 75 and 80 minutes respectively.

The favourites eventually scored twice to break the resistance. Ireland know the drill after a pair of late James McClean goals in Chisinau last October avoided the banana skin.

Seamus Coleman, James McClean and Jon Walters were key elements of that game and are missing tonight. Robbie Brady is absent again too but, along with McClean, he will be back for Wales. Wes Hoolahan and Shane Long teamed up effectively in the first half of that fixture and should see action again here.

60 SPORT MURPHY 1396510.jpg
Republic of Ireland's Daryl Murphy. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Given the quality of the opponent, there is a case for starting with a second striker, Daryl Murphy, up front - especially as Ireland have good memories of deploying a diamond system.

He's come through a hectic schedule of late, though, and conserving his energy might be on the minds of management as he will almost certainly be needed at some juncture in Wales.

Murphy may only have scored once for Ireland, but it's Shane Long who could really benefit from a confidence boost and a longer stint.

The alternatives are new faces Scott Hogan and Sean Maguire and it would be a surprise if they were sent into the fray from the outset. A substitute cameo is a more plausible scenario as an introduction to this level. Don't forget David McGoldrick either.

The major personnel decision is in midfield. Glenn Whelan, David Meyler, Harry Arter and Jeff Hendrick are the major players in the centre of the park as the game should come far too soon for James McCarthy.

In terms of width, Aiden McGeady and Callum O'Dowda are the leading options to replace McClean.

Hendrick is guaranteed to be first choice whereas the others are unsure of their status, but the fact O'Neill brought Meyler with him to his press conference can be construed as a hint.

O'Dowda was also given a strong mention with O'Neill a big admirer of the Bristol City player who made his competitive debut off the bench in Chisinau.

"I've a lot of faith in him," said O'Neill. "I brought him into the squad from the under-21s and he's beginning to flourish now. When he comes in, he's always been impressive. It might tell you something that when we were trying to look for something against Serbia I did put him on the field of play."

He continued by saying that O'Dowda would be a big player for the future, a reference to the longer term that made more sense in light of subsequent events. Pitching Maguire or Hogan in at some point would feed into the theme of transition.

Change is definitely coming around the corner and the top brass have decided that O'Neill and Keane are the men to implement it. It has added a bit of intrigue to the Moldovan encounter as the reaction from the Aviva patrons will offer a barometer of the public mood.

"I think the season tickets have gone from 4,000 to 16,000 so I think there is some evidence we are doing OK," said O'Neill.

We did qualify for the Euros and we are still in the mix for this one. I suppose one (tournament) out of one isn't so bad."

That strike-rate could be reduced by 50pc by Tuesday morning so if Ireland are to go down, it will have to be in a blaze of glory. Otherwise, the decision makers will come under intense scrutiny with a long wait until the next Ballsbridge game of substance.

O'Neill was relaxed yesterday, content to joke about the assistant manager's temper when his influence was discussed. He acknowledged that Keane will have ambitions to go out on his own again in the future while confirming that the Corkman is content to be part of plan to move forward.

"He has been excellent for me," said O'Neill, before breaking into a smile. "I was nearly going to say that he's mellowed but he's certainly not done that at all. In fact, he might even have got worse."

The rage would surface if Ireland fell short against Moldova and not only on the sideline. That would be a nightmare for the FAI after they placed their trust in the package that was originally flagged as a dream team. It shouldn't come to that.

Verdict: Ireland 3 Moldova 0

Irish Independent

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