Saturday 23 March 2019

'Judge me on my record' claims defiant manager O'Neill

'You have to take the criticism that comes your way': Martin

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is pictured in Lausanne, Switzerland at the UEFA Nations League draw
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is pictured in Lausanne, Switzerland at the UEFA Nations League draw
(l-r) Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane and manager Marin O’Neill are pictured at the UEFA Nations League draw in Lausanne yesterday

The manager is back in the fold, the team are on their way to Cardiff in September for the first taste of something new.

But the Irish fans? They are still in the dark, when it comes to what exactly Martin O'Neill has been up to, and who he has been speaking to, in the long, barren months since that defeat to Denmark.

What we do know is that Ireland will play recent opponents Wales and Denmark in the group stage of the new Nations League, following yesterday's draw in Switzerland.

Wales away first, Denmark away last, two home games in between. Win the group and Ireland will move up a League and stand an even better chance of qualification for Euro 2020.

Is it good news, or a bad omen, that Ireland have to face the Danes again, so soon after that heavy loss in Dublin?

Can the loyal Irish support enjoy another trip to grey old Cardiff (Prague in September would have been a lot more enticing)?

Have the supermarkets of Copenhagen been able to restock their supplies of beer after Irish fans cleared them out in November?

How will Seamus Coleman handle the task of facing Wales in what would be his first competitive game in 18 months, a long absence inflicted on him by a Welshman?

But other questions remain and, sadly, Martin O'Neill was not in the mood to answer them yesterday, his first encounter with the Irish media since that 5-1 loss to the Danes.

He appeared petulant in two TV interviews (particularly with RTE) and was reluctant to speak about his links to Stoke City in other media duties.

At a sponsor's event in Dublin last week, FAI CEO John Delaney fended off questions about O'Neill's dealings with Stoke, and the interest from other clubs, by saying, repeatedly, that O'Neill himself would deal with those topics when facing the media yesterday.

That's something the manager failed to do. "I think John (Delaney) has explained it all anyway," O'Neill said when asked about his possible move to Stoke.

Erm, but Delaney said last week that you would deal with the issue this week? "Oh, did he?".

Ok, so you had offers but what convinced you to stay with the FAI? "I think that I would...that's for another day," he said. Given a chance to clear it all up, O'Neill stayed quiet.

To paraphrase another native of the North in his 60s: they haven't gone away, you know, those questions. Supporters, the ones who will fill those seats in Dublin for the games with Wales and Denmark, fill those seats on flights to Cardiff and Copenhagen, deserve to know and the issues over the Stoke link will hang over O'Neill until he deals with it.

O'Neill was keen to push those club links into the past but it's clear that this Ireland manager stands over his Ireland record.

"It's not a boasting thing, I've had numerous opportunities in my time here, and I have stayed," he said.

"So I don't take those jobs lightly. I think I actually look at in the opposite way to you, I think that the fact that people do actually want your services, I think it might be a compliment to the particular job that I've done with the Republic of Ireland.

"I've really enjoyed the job. I've an excellent relationship with John and the board and I think that those things are very, very important - a good relationship with my employers and I have actually enjoyed the job.

"Some things get forgotten, great great moments that we've had: beating the world champions, qualifying for the Euros, being in the last 16 of the Euros, not getting beaten away from home in the qualification for Russia and actually finishing two places above where we should have.

"I think I have to take all of those things into consideration and I did do. After reflection, I'm delighted to be here."

And O'Neill believes that the feeling about his contract extension is mutual as far as the players are concerned.

"I would say this about players; every single day they walk into their clubs they might expect a different manager," he commented.

"A manager's tenure at club level is very short and gets shorter as the time goes on. The players get used to that type of thing but the main thing about the players here, the players want to play for the Republic of Ireland, that's the No 1.

"They want to pull on the shirt. If you ask James McClean, that's it. It doesn't matter who the coach or manager would be. I think the players would be delighted that I'm staying on."

The next two years are boxed off: O'Neill and his staff signed up. The 5-1 loss still hurts, it seems.

"It's been tough, really tough, obviously it's been tough. We lost the game. You want to try and qualify but you have to take the criticism that comes your way," O'Neill said.

"We have some great memories too over the last couple of years but Denmark was the great disappointment, obviously.

"The truth here is that if we scored the second goal with James McClean, there's a fairly decent chance we would be in Russia.

"We conceded two goals within a minute, poor goals, and we're chasing the game. And we lose convincingly and that happened."

Those contractual duties to the FAI and UEFA completed at the draw, including a very uneasy TV interview with RTE's Tony O'Donogue (worth a look on independent.ie), O'Neill was probably relieved to leave Lausanne behind him last night.

Back to England back to basics, back to scouting. Green shoots like Declan Rice and Michael Obafemi in the Premier League suggest promise, the reality is more likely to be Championship players appearing in the green shirt in the months to come.

The only hope is that 2018's battles with the Danes are better than those in 2017.

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