O’Neill gets down to business ahead of Latvia clash

Robbie Keane remains as captain for two friendly encounters


Having worked a room of few familiar faces like a reunion of long lost friends on Tuesday, it appears Martin O’Neill is already feeling at home in his new role as Republic of Ireland manager.

His unveiling on Saturday was impressive and good-spirited but he upped it a notch for today’s media briefing after his first training session and the congregation swooned. The feel-good factor rarely lasts, but everyone enjoys it while it does.

There was a better symmetry to the relationship today. Jokes were well-timed and well-received and no prompting of the audience was necessary, but O’Neill did hint there would be some serious issues to discuss in-house soon enough.

Robbie Keane, for instance, may regret calling for a man with “balls” because O’Neill hardly backed his captain to lead his men into the Euro 2016 qualifiers, while Stephen Ireland will not, it seems, be afforded too much energy from management if it appears he needs to be convinced to return to international football.

The skipper will be 34 by the time the first qualifier rolls around in September and though O’Neill insisted today that no change is imminent, he intends revisiting the issue in the new year.

“Robbie arrived in last night,” said O’Neill, “I haven’t had a chance to speak with him one on one, other than a few words, and again today. I wouldn’t have thought anything would change at this minute, in the immediate time we have, I don’t see any point in doing that.

“After these two games are over, I will have time to consider these things but I wouldn’t be changing that now.”

Keane’s call for a no-nonsense manager was aimed, it seemed, at players like Ireland, who arrived at Villa shortly after O’Neill departed in August 2010 and who is enjoying something of a return to form at new club Stoke at the moment.

“That’s a long story,” said O’Neill of Ireland’s move to Villa, one that involved James Milner’s transfer to Manchester City and one “for another day”, but ultimately the deal wasn’t done under O’Neill’s watch and their paths did not cross.

They inevitably will, however, now that he is where he is, but O’Neill, who is understood to have been open to bringing Ireland to Villa at the time, will not be engaging in a charm offensive in his efforts to make it happen at international level.

“I don’t know Stephen that well and therefore I will really have to think about it,” he said before adding: “It shouldn’t be mind boggling. If people want to play for a start, that helps things immensely. If you are going to have to force people to play than that might become a different issue, but we’ll see.”

By that time, he had already used his assistant manager as a case study and insisted: “If Roy can come back, surely it’s open for anyone.”

O’Neill appears more comfortable with the Keane issue than anyone. While those around him are still scratching their heads as to how exactly this is going to work, the manager seems perfectly at ease with the situation, warmly praising his new assistant one minute and jokingly asserting his authority the next.

Keane, O’Neill quipped, was 90 minutes early for training this morning, not out of diligence or attention to detail, but because he was told to be.

Both were involved in training, with Keane a little more hands-on with the 24-man squad. That number could grow at the weekend after Anthony Pilkington joined Ciaran Clark and Robbie Brady on the injury list. Brady and Pilkington will be in Dublin for at least a day this week to introduce themselves to the new management team.

There’ll be no major evolution between now and Friday. O’Neill wants his side to “really go for it on Friday night”, so between now and then he and Keane will be mainly working on set-pieces and getting the team to “press high up the pitch”.

The manager, however, distanced himself slightly from his, perhaps ill-advised, reference to playing with “style and panache” on Saturday, and just for a moment began to sound a mite like his predecessor.

“I think the winning of the games is very important. Everyone of us sitting around this room thinks that qualifying for Euro 2016 would be great. I also said that it would be lovely to play with style and panache, but you have to a bit of realism about the game.

“I’ve said this every time about interviewed, it would be great if you have the calibre of player in your midst that is able to excite people and go past players and is a proper match-winner. Then, of course, let him go and let him play. I think that’s just common sense.

“If you haven’t those players available to you at the time, then I think you have to have an approach. I’m not totally pragmatic or cautious but you have to treat the players you have accordingly. Don’t ask them to do things they are incapable of doing. Ask them to do things that you know they can do, and if they do them very well on the evening, that’s all you can ask for.”

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