Martin O’Neill expecting ‘exceptionally difficult’ campaign for Ireland
Manager already plotting a path to next World Cup despite unsigned contract
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during a press conference at Clonmel Park Hotel in Tipperary. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Evidence, if it were needed, to support Martin O’Neill’s insistence that his unsigned contract shouldn’t be a distraction was presented by his stark assessment of a World Cup qualifying campaign fast approaching.
The Republic of Ireland, according to the manager, will likely need to top a group featuring Wales, Serbia and Austria for the drought of appearances at the showpiece stretching back to 2002 not to be extended.
Although winning the pool would guarantee Ireland a place at the 2018 tournament in Russia, finishing second doesn’t necessarily clinch a playoff as one of the runners-up across the nine groups misses out.
Such is the competition in Group D, O’Neill believes they could be the loser in the shake-up. For a man whose contract ended after Euro 2016 last month, the 64-year-old can’t be accused of not thinking long-term.
“I genuinely think our group might be the one with the least amount of points,” reasoned the Derryman yesterday during a trip to Clonmel for the FAI’s Festival of Football ahead of today’s annual general meeting.
“There’s no rule to say you can’t top the group with 11 points but it won’t happen. I just think the teams will beat each other because I feel our group is going to be exceptionally difficult, exceptionally difficult.
“We’ve got Serbia first away in September, a team with some top players. Austria had high expectations at the Euros and, though they didn’t do well, they will be kicking themselves. Their players won’t have changed and neither will their ability. They will be ready.
“We don’t play Wales until next year but they’ve got a world-class player in Gareth Bale. I think Georgia will improve again under their new manager who has got them going and Moldova won’t be easy either. If you could give me points against Moldova now, I would take them and head off to the Bahamas.”
Whether it’s to a location so exotic or not, O’Neill intends taking his first holiday since the Euro jaunt concluded before returning for his squad announcement in mid-August.
It now seems certain Robbie Keane won’t be included for the trip to Belgrade on September 5th, yet he could be afforded his 146th and last cap during the friendly at home to Oman on August 31st. The FAI dispensed a long time ago with testimonials, meaning the game won’t be considered a standalone tribute to the country’s record international scorer but instead a chance for the home crowd to give Keane a proper farewell 18 years on from his debut.
Candidate for retirement
O’Neill’s relief at O’Shea staying on was all the more apparent yesterday when he learned through the media of Shane Duffy’s one-match suspension arising from his red card in the defeat to France four weeks ago.
“Would that (ban) not be for the next Euros?” O’Neill queried before realising the immediacy of the situation.
“John has got another year left on his contract at Sunderland and I think he would like to run the two together if he felt he was wanted. It’s what I want him to do, be around the place and that was decent news for him to hear.
“I wanted to speak to him and that was a few weeks ago when he was on holiday. I could hear a shout in the background about looking after some youngsters.”
O’Shea must be working on the assumption, like the FAI by now, that O’Neill will be contractually committed when they regroup in four weeks’ time for the double-header.
“It [the contract] is ready for signature,” noted the manager. “There’s not a problem, I never know what the fuss is about.”