Saturday 22 October 2016

O'Neill looking to new Ireland dawn after rebuilding bridges

Manager sees much hope for the future

Martin O’Neill arrives back in Dublin. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill arrives back in Dublin. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Deflation once again. After an hour when we dared to dream, a few days later and the reality of Ireland's exit from Euro 2016 struck home in the Gare de Lyons.

Bedraggled and hungover, the last platoons of Ireland's green army made their way to all points of the compass, searching for an empty seat on full planes.

They, like Martin O'Neill and his players, had time to reflect on and digest that final 30 minutes which blew a hole in Ireland's ambitions but the mood was anything but downbeat.

Deflated definitely because we had more than a glimpse of a quarter-final in the Stade de France while Robbie Brady's penalty stood firm against the tournament hosts but nobody could really find time to be too critical.

O'Neill felt the same way. He was still disappointed yesterday about the circumstances which ultimately led to defeat but he has reason to be mighty pleased with the way his first foray into major tournament management at international level progressed.


And he spoke a great deal about the bond which now exists between the fans and these players and that is one big plus from Euro 2016.

The fans covered themsleves in glory in Poland when they sang through the misery of humiliation in each of the three games there to cheer themselves up more than anything else but it was very obvious that the connection between team and supporters was damaged.

For so long, Giovanni Trapattoni's sterility made Ireland hard to love and against a background of tough financial times and acres of empty green plastic seats in the Aviva, it needed something special to rebuild the relationship and O'Neill should be thanked for that by his employers.

Strictly speaking, the FAI are no longer his employers. His contract ended the moment the final whistle blew and Ireland's interest in this tournament ended but a formal agreement on a new deal should be tied up soon.

"My contract officially ended about a minute and a half after the result," he said. "But I don't see that being an issue now. I've agreed with John and would be happy to continue on if he's still feeling that way.

"We're back at it in a couple of months time and it's back to a long gruelling campaign to try and qualify. I've never felt anything else other that we've gone into games trying to win, right way back from Georgia - and that game, eventually, was as important as the game against Germany.

"So there's a long gruelling competition ahead and there'll be points taken off each other again. And just when you feel you think you've cracked it, you'll get stung.

"And just when you feel it's the other way, you roll back again. I'd just like us to try and qualify again but qualification is totally different to the old tournament football. For us to enjoy this we had to go through 12 games of really tough work."

"The performance of the players has, I think, resonated with the fans back home. It's been great, the support back home and obviously the support here, too.

"The fusion between the players and the fans has been a real sight to behold, it really has and now pushing forward, if we can, some players have come of age, are doing really well at international level and regardless of form at club level, almost like throwing it aside and becoming new players.

"Jeff Hendrick, for instance. He had that bit of a shoulder injury and not playing regularly for Derby, has still become a strong player for us, doing really well.

"Young Brady did brilliantly for us. I think those players have come of age and that's given us great hope.

"I think the younger players have kind of taken a bit of ownership and thought 'it's our time, our time' and they stepped up and performed brilliantly."

"I could run you through my two years of watching Jeff when I first saw him when I got this job.

"Jeff spent most of his time playing the ball back. Getting it and playing it back. And I just said to him, 'you've got to get turned. Get turned and get at people, you're strong' .

There is one obvious weakness which O'Neill must address. Robbie Keane may or may not retire along with players like John O'Shea, Shay Given and perhaps Glenn Whelan and Shane Long s not far off 30.

"It would be nice to have a forward, what shall I say, we don't have a Gareth Bale in that sense. We don't have that.

O'Neill has never been less than spiky since he took this job but perhaps now, with the thanks of a nation for a fine start to the sporting summer, he can relax into the position.

After the fiasco that was the Cork Opera House and everything which followed, he seemed to dig himself into a trench and maybe that's the way he need to work.

But his preparation and his approach to Euro 2016 has been vindicated. and he clearly needed to feel wanted before he would recommit. Why else was there such a song and dance about signing a new deal.

"Do you know what? I started off with this thing in terms of vindication but do you know what, you have to live or die by the things that you do. So if you say that I've been vindicated then fine."

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