Judgment day for players as O’Neill-Keane reign begins

‘I don’t want the players to treat these like friendly games’

Manager Martin O’Neill at last night’s Republic of Ireland training run-out at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Manager Martin O’Neill at last night’s Republic of Ireland training run-out at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Fri, Nov 15, 2013, 01:00

Martin O’Neill delivered a passing pronouncement on the job done by Giovanni Trapattoni last night at the Aviva Stadium where he suggested that the 74-year-old had done a better job here than Paolo Di Canio did at Sunderland. If the Italian has been tuning in to his successor’s early press appearances, however, he is unlikely to feel overly flattered by that.

The new man has, in fact, been generally positive about his predecessor and he was pleased, he said, to hear Robbie Keane also talk Trapattoni up. The challenge now, though, is to do better than the Italian had in his last year or so and whether O’Neill can manage that will only start to become apparent when the team takes on Latvia tonight in front of a crowd expected to exceed 35,000.

The estimated attendance provides some sense of the renewed optimism amongst the public, and the players are enthusiastic too according to their captain. O’Neill, though, is still finding his feet after just two days on the training ground with a squad he didn’t select, and the manager didn’t seem to have entirely settled on either his team or tactics as he prepared for session number three last night.

Some fluency
The intention seems to be to give as many players a run-out as possible while still retaining some fluency. Ultimately, O’Neill admits that a few may go home disappointed next week having failed to feature and with a couple of new faces set to come in they will inevitably worry about their international futures. Most, though, will get a chance and, he suggested, should strive to take it.

“I don’t want the players to treat these like friendly games,” he said. “I told them that last night. These are very, very important. It’s a bit like I would have treated pre-season, which, if I had been at a club the previous season, was all about the players getting fit.

“But if I was going into a club for the first time, then pre-season became very important. They became big games, because I have to make judgements on players and that’s exactly how I see these games coming up. They may not be competitive in terms of picking up points, but they are very important.”

Robbie Keane would appear to have no real concerns about his involvement for the foreseeable future, with O’Neill having expressed a general distaste for the proliferation of performance-related statistics in the game today before admitting to an admiration for the striker’s most glittering one, a return of 61 goals in 130 international games.

“I know the game seems to be just full of stats nowadays,” said the former Celtic and Aston Villa boss. “You know, stats for passing, stats for picking your nose or something they say at the end of the day.

‘Important stats’
“The important stats are actually scoring goals . . . scoring goals. Somewhere along the way, it’s stuck down about fifth on the list. I’m absolutely convinced that some club players that I’ve had go by these stats. I could have one or two players playing in my teams who would statistically be better players than Xavi, you know better passing like, but who wouldn’t actually be as good as Xavi, you know.

“So the important stats are actually scoring goals and the more opportunities that are in around the penalty area, if there is an opportunity to shoot, then that’s something that I would be encouraging. Which I think is nearly natural but sometimes it’s missed out.”

With that in mind, O’Neill says that he would like the team to press hard and high up the pitch in the hope of winning possession and turning that into scoring opportunities.

His track record suggests there is likely to be a role for the squad’s more natural wide men and Keane seemed to suggest that Aiden McGeady, who played under O’Neill in Scotland, remains highly rated. James McCarthy, Séamus Coleman and Marc Wilson can all be expected to continue in their evolution into central figures but there is plenty that remains up in the air, and will do beyond next Tuesday given that a a handful of contenders for “regular” status are missing through injury.

O’Neill said he is worked up about the occasion. “It’s a football game and I’m in charge of the team so yeah, I’m excited.”

Some of Ireland’s most successful managers have started poorly and O’Neill joked the other day that he might look to lose as to continue the trend. It seems unlikely, to be fair, against these opponents but if it happens he should probably expect a call, or at least a message, from his old mate Di Canio.

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