HOW you choose to assess the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign to date depends on whether you see the Guinness glass half full or half empty. When Martin O’Neill faced the Irish media at Dublin’s Radisson Hotel yesterday, it was apparent many interrogators believe there has been too much froth and too little of the black stuff for the Group D qualifiers to quench the thirst for progress.
O’Neill, it is claimed, has struggled across his 20 months in charge to make much of a mark on a team perceived as all-too-vulnerable. If games were contested across 85 minutes, the Republic would be sitting with only four points from five matches in their tilt for the finals – with three of these bagged in a turkey shoot against Gibraltar.
“We are good at some things and not so clever at others. But that could be said about a few national sides”Martin O’Neill
The fact that the Republic actually have double this points tally, and can move ahead of Scotland with a win on home turf this evening, shows it is possible to present the evidence of Group D in an entirely different fashion. Which, unsurprisingly, O’Neill chose to do when it was put to him that the Republic’s campaign had stalled after seven points were banked from the first three games.
“We got beaten by Scotland [in November] by a goal in the 75th minute and we drew with Poland [in March] and in the game before that we drew with Germany in Germany, who’d won the world championship and won that about three months earlier,” he said in a stout defence of his Euro 2016 record.
“We won our first two games, one of which was away from home. I’m not so sure I think it’s been a real stalling but everybody views it differently, that’s the nature of it. You see it from that viewpoint, I don’t actually see it from there.
“I think we have a campaign in which we’ve got ten games and we’ve got to get x number of points to try and qualify. We’re in a pretty tough group, I think everyone here would accept that. There are easier groups, while one or two may be more difficult. Some teams are already talking that if they win their game at the weekend that they’re already through; England, Northern Ireland have a great chance.
“That’s not going to be like us, that’s not our group. It’s going to be tight and the teams are difficult. We played away from home against Scotland, now we have a chance to redress it. I’m not so sure I take your point.”
The mood around the Republic camp yesterday was understandably sombre. A pall has been cast over the encounter following the death of two of Robbie Keane’s cousins; the second of these brothers yesterday succumbing to the toxic fumes that overcame the pair when working in a sewer.
The tragedy, which threatens the involvement of a grieving Republic captain this evening, comes after the car crash that O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane emerged unscathed from earlier in the week. In turn, this followed on from FAI chief executive John Delaney’s damaging admission that the governing body accepted what was, effectively, a hush money payment of €5m from Fifa to stop legal action after France controversially beat Ireland in a World Cup play-off in 2009.
When it is recalled that an incident involving the blameless Roy Keane at the team hotel led to the gardai being called before the November trip to Celtic Park, it can seem as if Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign has been bedevilled.
Yet, O’Neill would no doubt counter that this disregards what he can reflect on with pride over the five fixtures. The late, late goals that allowed victory to be snatched in Georgia, and draws to be salvaged in Germany and at home to Poland are taken as evidence by the former Celtic manager that his team do not lack in one crucial respect.
Asked why he was confident his team can secure victory this evening, O’Neill said: “I look around the squad and see experience, really top-class experience. There is also a bit of energy in the side and a bit of ability.
“I would never question their spirit. I think that has been epitomised by some late goals in matches. Those goals have kept us there and I think that very strong spirit in the side is important. Naturally, we are good at some things and not so clever at others. But that could be said about a few national sides. But I don’t think we will be defeated by another team having more spirit than us. That is a start, a help and can carry us a distance but of course you need other things to win big games.”
Although Aiden McGeady is a doubt with a hamstring problem, O’Neill will have big players available who were absent through injury in Glasgow in the form of James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan and Wes Hoolahan. In a game of “derby proportions”, O’Neill suggested “little details” could make the difference. The problem for the Republic is that they now have little margin for error.