AFTER HIS BRIEF visit to Limerick yesterday, Martin O’Neill departs for Nice this weekend knowing the job at hand will be a lot clearer by Sunday afternoon.
In less than 48 hours, Ireland discover their fate as the Euro 2016 draw is made at the Palais des Congrès Acropolis and 53 nations are divided up into nine groups.
The good news is that the Boys in Green have been placed in Pot 2 ahead of the first 24-team European Championships, which suggests they are more likely to avoid some of the stronger sides.
Belgium, Sweden, Ukraine, Switzerland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Croatia and Hungary will definitely not be facing Ireland in a competitive game over the next two years but the caveat to that, however, is that Pot 3 also contains some tough away trips.
With no competitive matches for the first ten months of his reign, O’Neill spoke about his excitement to be able to focus his efforts on the first round of fixtures in September.
“I’m looking forward to it immensely,” the Derry man said when asked about the draw yesterday. “It draws it more closely to me as it’s a focal point.
“Whatever we get, I can see teams in Pot 2 with us that you feel might not be as strong as some teams in Pot 3. There are also some teams in Pot 4 that we’ll be weary of.
You could look at it forever and a day but let’s just take it as it happens. I’ll try not make too many faces if a draw comes up that I’m not overly happy with!”
Before setting off on the road to France, a series of friendlies are in the process of being lined up and the O’Neill has named a provisional squad for the first game of 2014 — the visit of Serbia to Dublin on 5 March.
He and his assistant Roy Keane have been busy attending a string of grounds around Britain since taking over but anyone hoping for a raft of new faces will have been disappointed by yesterday’s announcement.
Of the 27 players named by Noel King for O’Neill’s international bow against Latvia and Poland, 23 have kept their places.
Among those who been recalled, Robbie Brady, Keiren Westwood, Joey O’Brien and Sean St Ledger are all injured while captain Robbie Keane has been rested.
Coming in are Darren Randolph, Richard Keogh, Damien Delaney, David Meyler, Simon Cox and Daryl Murphy. With the exception of Ipswich striker Murphy, who hasn’t played for Ireland in over five years, none of those names come as a surprise.
It is a case of evolution rather than revolution but also says a lot about the limited pool that O’Neill has to choose from.
“It’s my first squad but not overly dissimilar to the one that was picked by Noel the last time around,” said O’Neill.
“I’ve added a couple of other people, there are one or two players injured, and there are one or two in the provisional squad who I know would like to have had more playing time at clubs.
While you see a lot of familiar names, the idea that I had some young 17-year-old who will come through and be absolutely brilliant for us in the next next couples, I haven’t exactly seen that at this moment.
“There are a couple injured and I’m quite sure there will be a few at the weekend that I may have to reconsider. But there is time, I know it seems like an eternity but the last few months have absolutely flown in.
“I’ve gone to the games and particularly wanted to see a bit more of the players that I inherited and that is what I’ve done. I think other things will take care of themselves in the next couple of months.
“If I can get what I consider the best players in the best form when the big games come around then all the better for me and for Republic of Ireland.”
Source: Felice Calabro'
Ireland’s summer schedule hasn’t been ironed out completely but what we do know is that Turkey are coming to Dublin to play on 25 May while a meeting with Italy four days earlier at a neutral venue seems likely.
A trip to the US is in the pipelines and although New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium has confirmed a friendly between Ireland and Portugal on 10 June, they are believed to have jumped the gun as the FAI have yet to confirm the game.
As O’Neill explains, plans are slightly up in the air until after Sunday’s draw.
“There is a good strong chance about Italy at the moment. We could end up getting both of those teams in the draw.
“At some stage you haven’t organise these games because these teams have plans and you could end up with no games so I understand we had to move early.
“Now that we have hopefully got those games, I’ll have a look. Of course I’d like a third game but I’m aware also that the players would like to get break.
Summer time is not that much use to them. We will see. I’ll take into consideration the draw.
“I would have ten games as the manager but I have look at the players as well. It’s more important to have them absolutely ready for September.”