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Tuesday 6 December 2016

O'Neill ready to fight for his players

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during a press conference at the National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Co Dublin
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during a press conference at the National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Co Dublin

Just like all Ireland managers down through the years, Martin O'Neill has been sorely afflicted by injuries during his bid to qualify for the major tournament and the pattern continues for Bosnia.

At the start of a week which will define the nation's plans for next summer, O'Neill has a list of walking wounded which would be a trial for any international boss in the run up to such important games.

It was amusing to read that Bosnian boss Mehmed Bazdarevic suspects that an outbreak of 'silly buggers' would account for O'Neill's tradition of naming enormous squads; that he is hoping to confuse rival coaches.

The reality is something different entirely. Given his experience over the last 18 months, O'Neill needs to name everyone simply because he has no idea from one game to the next who will turn up and even if they do, whether they will have played any meaningful football in the intervening period.

At least Ireland managers up to Steve Staunton could expect players to gather in Dublin before international games with club football in their legs.

Sure, there has been a decline in the volume of top quality footballers available for international selection since Jack Charlton's unique group, but those that were available to Mick McCarthy, Brian Kerr and Staunton played for their clubs.

Decrease

The rot really set in during Giovanni Trapattoni's four years. His appointment came at a time when the Premier League's recruitment policy went global down to under-age level and there has been a steady decrease in the miles run by Irish players in the Premier League - even if they are lucky enough to find a gig in the top flight.

If anything, the situation is even worse for O'Neill. It has become a major issue.

That's the reason why O'Neill is prepared to invoke UEFA rules if John O'Shea can give him any glimmer of hope that he will be fit in time for the second-leg against Bosnia at the Aviva next Monday or more urgently, Shane Long for Friday.

He can't afford to persist with his softly, softly approach to English clubs for these play-off games and while he acknowledged that both Sam Allardyce and Ronald Koeman have every right to point out that O'Shea and Long didn't play at the weekend, he clearly has no time at all for Steve McClaren and his rather odd take on Rob Elliot's availability.

"We can still assess the player if we want to without the permission of the club. I prefer to work with the club and so far I've worked with the clubs," said O'Neill when asked whether he would invoke the UEFA rules if necessary.

"Every club could honestly say that I have basically looked after the club's pretty well. I certainly don't want to play someone who is injured. But if it comes to this point, these games are very important to us," he said, his voice trailing off but leaving no doubt that he will reach for the rulebook if he has to.

With many years behind him in the bump and grind of English club football, O'Neill understands where Allardyce and Koeman are coming from but not former England boss McClaren.

"I understand this but I'm not so sure I could ask someone to play on a Saturday, he plays really well and wins three points and then tell him that 'you can't travel'. Did he slip in the bath?

"He played. He played brilliantly and he was Man of the Match. Then suddenly he's not fit for us which is going to be a week later. You'd have to be a soothsayer to know someone is going to be fit.

"A lot will depend on the specialists but it seems a wee bit strange that he shouldn't be travelling for us when he's just won the game and performed miracles," he added.

As of now, O'Neill will wait for a variety of specialist and physio reports for O'Shea, Long, Paul McShane, Alan Judge and Elliot, while Keiren Westwood is still troubled by injury but turned up in Dublin and will be assessed daily.

"Shane has seen a specialist and had an injection. Alan (Byrne), out doctor, has said that we really won't know for 48 hours. It will be touch and go and he hasn't really done anything since the Poland game."

"We'll see how it goes. He said to hold fire and that's what I'll do," said O'Neill.

O'Shea's chances are also balanced on a knife edge.

"He thought there might be a chance of playing on Saturday but felt that was a wee bit too soon. He's stayed at Sunderland and he will have to monitor it day by day but for Monday, he has not ruled himself out."

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