‘I’ve told the play­ers: don’t die won­der­ing’

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - COLIN YOUNG

EURO­PEAN Cup win­ner, World Cup player in North­ern Ire­land’s first fi­nals ap­pear­ance in Spain ’82, a cup and a ti­tle or two with Le­ices­ter City and Celtic. There are times when Martin O’Neill’s his­tory and achieve­ments come in handy. This week might just be one of them.

The Repub­lic of Ire­land man­ager al­ways felt qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the 2018 World Cup fi­nals in Rus­sia would come down to this lo­cal-derby cli­max in Cardiff City Sta­dium to­mor­row night. He was right about that. The im­por­tance of to­mor­row’s game and re­sult, the con­se­quences of vic­tory or de­feat, do not need to be em­pha­sised by the man­ager.

This is O’Neill’s big­gest game as Ire­land man­ager, big­ger than any­thing in the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship qual­i­fiers and fi­nals, sim­ply be­cause it is the World Cup. O’Neill gets that. Even as a BBC TV World Cup pun­dit, he knows there is noth­ing quite like it. And he would clearly dearly love his play­ers to have a slice of the great­est football jam­boree un­der his guid­ance.

“This is a re­ally big game, yeah,” said O’Neill. “I’ve been in­volved in a few and a cou­ple of Euro­pean Cup wins as well. Ac­tu­ally I am go­ing to tell you, this is big. It’s a big game. It is qual­i­fi­ca­tion for a World Cup and I keep telling the play­ers, hon­estly, play­ing in a World Cup, it is fan­tas­tic, it’s ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic.

“To be in­volved in a World Cup when you are dealing with other na­tions and play­ers and with a lit­tle bit of luck you could be in the same group as someone like Messi. It is fan­tas­tic. We had a great time in 1982.

“I’ve told the play­ers, ‘This is it . . . this is it, so don’t die won­der­ing. You have to go for it’. And we will go for it.”

When he left the Aviva last month fol­low­ing the Ser­bia de­feat, O’Neill had started his ral­ly­ing call for these fi­nal two matches. He made a point of it. Ire­land would beat both Moldova and Wales, he had in­sisted.

And at that stage Chris Cole­man’s galac­tico Gareth Bale was close to a re­turn to full fit­ness at Real Madrid. The su­per­star’s calf in­jury se­verely ham­pers the Welsh cause. Rarely be­fore a game does an ab­sent player pre­oc­cupy both an Ir­ish side and their op­po­nents as much as Bale.

O’Neill, how­ever, was ea­ger to point out that he will be with­out his one world-class player. Sea­mus Cole­man will again watch from the Ir­ish bench in Cardiff but he will be a huge part of the dress­ing room in the build-up to kick-off. Neil Tay­lor’s hor­ror chal­lenge in the cor­re­spond­ing fix­ture at the Aviva ended Cole­man’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the qual­i­fiers, but O’Neill wants him to be at the World Cup fi­nals.

“Gareth Bale is a top-class player and Wales will feel that he is a loss to them, in the same man­ner that I feel Sea­mus Cole­man is a loss to us,” added the Ire­land man­ager.

“Gareth Bale is a top-qual­ity player. Out­side Messi and Ron­aldo, there’s a group of seven or eight play­ers and he is def­i­nitely one of them, no ques­tion about it, and he is a re­ally great player. I am sure Wales will feel they would have a bet­ter chance of win­ning if he was play­ing, that’s the na­ture of the game.

“We have played games with play­ers missing. We played in Moldova and Jeff Hen­drick and (Rob­bie) Brady didn’t play. We need to be as strong as we can and if you look at this cam­paign and through to the Eu­ros, we have had to bat­tle through with­out play­ers who are im­por­tant to us, who have been missing.

“You should see the boys in the dress­ing room. The game against Moldova was im­por­tant. We needed to win the game, one way or an­other, we got off to a re­ally good start which was great and even­tu­ally we took our foot off the pedal, I sup­pose. I don’t think I have to say any­thing. The play­ers know the im­por­tance of the game, we want to try and win it. It boils down to this and we need to win it.”

O’Neill told his play­ers of Wales’ vic­tory in Tbil­isi prior to the start of Fri­day’s clash with Moldova. Tom Lawrence’s win­ner gave Chris Cole­man’s team a bet­ter re­sult than the Ir­ish could muster in Georgia last month, but did not re­ally change the ne­ces­sity to gain two wins.

But, with Ser­bia los­ing in Aus­tria and still need­ing to beat Georgia in their fi­nal game to­mor­row to en­sure au­to­matic qual­i­fi­ca­tion, it does em­pha­sise how bleak last month’s re­sults were. Wins in Georgia and at home to Ser­bia would have put Ire­land top of the group now.

There may be frus­tra­tion at that but there is no sense in look­ing back for the Ir­ish man­age­ment and their team. O’Neill in­sisted be­fore and af­ter the penul­ti­mate game that he, and no doubt his FAI bosses, would have taken this sce­nario at the start of qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

Goal­keeper Dar­ren Ran­dolph, who made the save of the game in the 2-0 win over Moldova, be­lieves Ire­land’s pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence in games of this na­ture will give them an ad­van­tage over Bale-less Wales.

The Mid­dles­brough ’keeper said: “We have been in­volved in a few big games and this is an­other big game. Ob­vi­ously what­ever comes af­ter it will be mas­sive, if we get the re­sult we want, and every­thing else goes our way. It will be huge.

“I have played in some big games al­ready, like the Italy game in the Eu­ros, and there was noth­ing rid­ing on that game for Italy. They had to make a few changes and we kept go­ing and go­ing that night.

“The Welsh team will be the ex­act same as us. We are sim­i­lar na­tions in the way we kind of fight on. They have showed that in the last cou­ple of years and so have we. Ex­pe­ri­ence like that night in Lille can help but it will be a

‘The squad know the im­por­tance of the game — it boils down to this and we need to win it’

to­tally dif­fer­ent game, style of football and at­mos­phere.

“We play against the same play­ers week in and week out. Ev­ery­body knows ev­ery­one. We have sim­i­lar styles of football if you want to put it that way. Teams do their home­work on other teams and it can be harder to break teams down and get an easy win.

“It will come down to the team who scores more than the other. I don’t think we are go­ing to have a lack of hunger. We know what is at stake. It is sim­i­lar to them. They know what is at stake. You can be as hun­gry as you want but you can’t lose your shape, your dis­ci­pline, your cool, or what­ever. If you do it can cost you.”

Al­though they have yet to sit down and iron out fi­nal de­tails, not least the fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions of keep­ing the pair on, the FAI are pleased to have agreed in prin­ci­ple to en­sur­ing O’Neill and his as­sis­tant, Roy Keane, will be at the helm of the se­nior team for the next cam­paign. But, as with the con­tracts post-Euro 2016, there is no rush to those talks, or to see their sig­na­tures.

Like the FAI, and the man­age­ment duo, the play­ers seem happy that the sta­tus quo will be main­tained when Ire­land start the Euro 2020 qual­i­fiers, which is go­ing to in­volve 24 fi­nal­ists

and fi­nals matches across 13 Euro­pean na­tions, in­clud­ing group games and a last-16 en­counter in the Aviva.

The news may have been blurted out on the FAI’s own chan­nel, rather than in the once-cus­tom­ary press con­fer­ence, but O’Neill sidestepped the is­sue prior to leav­ing the sta­dium of Fri­day night. “I’d rather not if you don’t mind,” he said, when asked to com­ment fur­ther on the an­nounce­ment.

But de­fender Shane Duffy said: “Yes, we’re pleased. He is a top, top man­ager and I am de­lighted he is stay­ing. He has brought suc­cess to the coun­try and we are one game away from mak­ing it to the World Cup, so I am de­lighted. He has kept an ex­pe­ri­enced back­room team too. Roy, (goal­keep­ing coach) Sea­mus (McDon­agh), (coaches) Steve (Guppy) and Steve (Wal­ford) are a key part of the set-up. Be­hind closed doors what hap­pens there is an im­por­tant part of the team. Ev­ery­one sticks to­gether.”

The Brighton cen­tre-back was then asked: What about Wales? “Bring it on,” he said.

Main photo: Daryl Mur­phy cel­e­brates with team-mates Shane Long, Shane Duffy and Stephen Ward af­ter scor­ing his first goal against Moldova on Fri­day night, and, left, Martin O’Neill with his man­age­ment team be­fore kick-off.

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