Martin O’Neill urges Ireland to keep momentum going
Republic of Ireland boss admits newcomers are facing tough task to earn squad place
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill oversees squad training at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
It is a few years now since a perceived lack of fear on the part of Switzerland as they came to Dublin for a qualifier was used as an excuse to get rid of a manager. As they return for a friendly, it’s the lack of local interest that must concern the FAI – were Euro 2016 places not up for grabs that would surely have been a major problem.
The association has refrained from shouting about the fact that the Aviva Stadium will be one of the few places where alcohol is being sold this afternoon. However, they still seem pretty happy to have it put out there.
Martin O’Neill appeared genuinely bemused by the news and joked that it explained why his family were keen to come to the game – unless his wife or daughters have some reason to take particular exception to that, it was comfortably the manager’s less controversial gag of the afternoon.
The ticket prices, in any case, suggest that this game is significantly more attractive than Tuesday’s against Slovakia.
Still, though there are a few more familiar faces amongst the Swiss, they hardly represent an outstanding draw at a time when their Bosnian-Croat coach, Vladimir Petkovic, is battling some of the same issues as O’Neill, with various players struggling to get regular football at club level.
For the Irishman, there is some good news. Options have increased with Aiden McGeady’s return to action, as well as the club form of Rob Elliot, Shane Duffy and Alan Judge. All are likely to get some game time over the next few days and there is the possibility that all might start against the Swiss.
O’Neill, though, insists that there will be enough of his regulars involved to provide a standard against which he can better gauge the newcomers’ impact.
The loss of Robbie Keane yesterday to a knee injury has restricted the manager’s room for manoeuvre up front. Anthony Pilkington, who has been playing as a striker for Cardiff City of late, is also out, but Kevin Doyle is available and is another who has been told he will get a chance.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of options to tease out.
Anchor the defence
John O’Shea’s presence alongside the manager at the pre-match press conference suggests he will captain the side and the Sunderland player’s experience makes him a frontrunner to anchor the defence in France; having said that, if club form were the primary factor for O’Neill, then none of the centre halves would have unanswerable cases for inclusion.
Duffy, a physically strong defender from Derry who is good in the air and has been progressing well at Blackburn, is set to get the opportunity to stake a place in the squad; it will be hard to do much more than that.
Similarly, Judge has a place in France to play for, but despite Darren Randolph’s strong performances since replacing Shay Given against Germany, Elliot may feel he can win the number one jersey given how unsettled the position has been and the fact that he is only serious contender at this stage who is playing week in week out.
“I want to experiment with a few players. I also want to be competitive and I’d like to just keep the momentum going, as we don’t have that many games left to the start of the Euros,” said O’Neill when asked about his ambitions for the evening. “But effectively, we just want to try to play with a wee bit of cohesion and just go and enjoy it.
“Of course, the idea of this here is to give a few players the opportunity, late and all as it may be, to try to stake a claim for it. To be fair about it, though, the players who are coming in late here have a bit to do. Everything would probably have to go pretty well for them individually.
“But it’s not impossible,” he continued, “and it’s happened before, and that’s why I’d like to open the door for them, to feel as if they have got a chance. And for instance, one or two of them – let’s say they didn’t make it – they know they are right maybe for the World Cup campaign coming up almost immediately.”
Those hoping to make an immediate impact face quite a challenge, with friendly matches hardly providing the perfect environment for doing so.
Still there is the potential for this game, and Tuesday’s against Slovakia, to be remembered for the chances they afforded newcomers to lay down markers for the future.
Should anyone seize the initiative, then O’Neill will view the exercise as having been worthwhile.
The manager, meanwhile, appeared to all but confirm that Belarus will provide the opposition for the team in Cork in June when he attempted to have the association’s communications director, Ian Mallon, make the announcement during the press conference.
Mallon declined to do so but also declined to deny it, preferring perhaps to announce the news at a time when it would not be overshadowed.
He was probably too busy to get back to it last night, in any case, after O’Neill added to his workload with a reply to a question about his attitude to the presence of wives and girlfriends at the team’s base in France.
“Well, it depends on how good-looking the girls are,” said O’Neill, who has a habit of sprinkling his media appearances with jokes, some better thought-out than others. “If they are really attractive, they’re very, very welcome. The uglier ones, I’m afraid not.”
After months in which his judgment under pressure has helped haul the team back from the brink of an exit, it was not one of his best lines.