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Monday 5 December 2016

O'Neill walks his own road to Russia 2018

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill.
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill.

It will be nice to see Martin O'Neill in Vienna later today, maybe get some insight into what he's thinking for what is a huge World Cup qualifier.

O'Neill hasn't been seen all week in the FAI media centre, reflecting a steady withdrawal from the public eye which began in the wake of the Cork Opera House fiasco in June.

But for Roy Keane's willingness to sit down for a chat, Ireland fans would be mostly in the dark about O'Neill's plans for the game.

There's a pattern here which has roots in the post-Saipan years, when a truly toxic atmosphere surrounded the Ireland camp.

In that context, it is indeed ironic that Keane should be the one to keep lines of communication open.

Relations between Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton and the outside world were always strained and in each case, they suffered because of it.

Even before that, John Giles will readily admit that the one mistake he made as Ireland boss was to dismiss the media as unimportant.

It made life unnecessarily difficult for him and that was in an era where criticism was very mild, certainly compared to the current frenzy of judgement which follows every game.

Giovanni Trapattoni simply didn't care one way or the other and proceeded in that way throughout his time with Ireland.

In the context of a difficult away game in Vienna, O'Neill's obvious disdain for some of the media work he is required to do will have no impact on the performance.

Selection

In reality, it is a symptom of a wider problem between those who write about football and O'Neill's employer, the FAI.

Fans don't care and only have eyes for the selection O'Neill will put out against Austria, a true Ireland bogey team and one we haven't beaten since Giles' day - October 13, 1963 to be precise.

But if you look at Austria's qualification record in World Cup and European Championship competitions another picture emerges.

They don't qualify very often. The last time they made it to the World Cup finals tournament show was in France in 1998 and prior to qualification for the Euros last summer, they had only made it to UEFA's big show once before in 2008.

O'Neill goes into this game without key men. Whatever anyone thinks about James McCarthy, he remains a first choice option and Harry Arter is, to say the least, unproven at international level.

But he is playing football in the Premier League every week now and has much more to his game than McCarthy has ever shown.

The other big absentee is Shane Long, another player who hasn't quite delivered what we all hoped for and again, O'Neill can lean on decent alternatives in Daryl Murphy and Jon Walters.

Perhaps the biggest loss is Stephen Ward, not so much for what he can do at left-full but because his presence means that Robbie Brady can be pushed forward into midfield, where many feel he does his best work.

Since the game against Italy in Lille, O'Neill appeared to settle on a reasonably stable line-up and for those who felt that his endless chopping and changing had to impact on consistency and performance level, this was a good thing.

Circumstances have interrupted that continuity and when Brady hit the deck after a nasty collision with Georgian defender Soloman Kvirkvelia, O'Neill had to lean on Wes Hoolahan for the trip to Chisinau.

The ongoing debate about Hoolahan received another shot of nitro when he ran the show against Moldova but you won't find many who would predict another start against Austria.

O'Neill has already made up his mind about Hoolahan and may have done so many months ago. He doesn't feel that he is the right man for a tough and likely physical battle against Austria and it would be a big surprise if he starts.

To be fair to O'Neill, he has gathered seven points from three games and two of them away from home. He will feel that the group is going very well and that he has made the right calls.

Austria represent a much more formidable challenge than either Georgia or Moldova but are they any more of a threat than Serbia?

A month ago, Wales twice took the lead in Vienna and were pegged back by a double from Stoke's Marko Arnautovic.

So they are far from invulnerable, no matter what permutation O'Neill comes up with to deal with them.

The prize for O'Neill and Ireland is huge. An eight-point total heading into the New Year would represent a perfect position to challenge for top place in Group D and the automatic qualification which comes with it.

Lose and the road ahead is very, very tough.

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