Martin O’Neill cautions World Cup still ‘a million miles away’
Republic of Ireland manager still believes Austria will have a say despite home defeat
James McClean celebrates after the Republic of Ireland’s win over Austria in the World Cup qualifier at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill insists that World Cup qualification is still “a million miles away” despite a win in Vienna that sends Ireland into the new-year in a strong position to push on and top Group D and take its automatic spot in Russia.
O’Neill revelled in the fact that it was James McClean who scored the game’s only goal with the manager noting with some satisfaction that it was he who gave the Derrryman his top flight debut at Sunderland.
But it was the overall performance and the points secured that pleased him most on a night that will long be remembered by the supporters who travelled to see the game.
“In terms of the achievement, I couldn’t be more proud of the team,” he said. “We’ve shown great strength of character over the last couple of years and I thought it was epitomised tonight.
“Naturally I’m delighted by the win. It was a tough evening. We had to withstand a lot of early pressure from Austria. But we started to come into the game just before half-time.
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“Jon Walters had the chance but that didn’t deflate us. If anything it gave us a spurt and in the second half we got to grips with it. We scored quite early on but even if you have prepared as much as we have done for the games, you can still be under pressure.”
They survived it well with the hosts limited to just one chance over the course of the second half that obliged Darren Randolph to make a decent save.
Late on, the pressure the locals were under to pull something out of the bag was entirely obvious but Ireland defended well and deserved their win, something that now leaves them with 10 points from four games, three of which have been away from home with two of those against major qualification rivals. Still, O’Neill insists that Ireland are involved in the same four-horse race as before.
“Austria naturally will be disappointed because they’ve dropped all three points here,” he acknowledged. “They drew at home here with Wales, and got beaten by Serbia. But something tells me they still have a chance.
“We’ve always believed this group will be tight and I think that teams will still take points off each other. I’m genuinely pleased we won the game, really pleased to have 10 points from four matches, but it’s still a million miles away.”
Having again scored the goal that made the difference, McClean was a little less circumspect than his manager.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s a massive result. Hopefully that gives us the platform to really believe we can win this group. There are no easy teams but we have momentum and we’re top of the group.”
It was a particularly assured finish from McClean who Roy Keane had said this week the management team has been trying to encourage to produce more in front of goal. Indeed, the 27-year-old suggested that his next meeting with the former Manchester United star might have been on his mind as he teed the shot up.
“If I had missed the target Roy would have killed me,” he said. “He hammers us in training that we must hit the target. But I hit it sweetly and it flew through the keeper’s legs. It was without a doubt my biggest goal for Ireland.”