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