REPUBLIC of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has insisted his preparations for tonight’s pivotal Euro 2016 qualifier against Scotland at Celtic Park have not been disrupted by his assistant Roy Keane’s off-the-field incident with a supporter.
Keane called Irish police to the team’s Portmarnock Hotel on Thursday following what is believed to have been a heated altercation with the fan in the reception area. The Football Association of Ireland and O’Neill both expressed their full support for Keane in a statement released yesterday morning.
While police continue to investigate the incident, O’Neill was reluctant to expand his thoughts on the matter when he faced the media at Celtic Park last night.
But the ex-Celtic manager, who is relishing his first competitive fixture back at the stadium where he enjoyed five hugely successful years, is adamant that no-one in the Irish camp has been unduly affected by the latest controversy to attach itself to Keane.
“It’s only a distraction,” said O’Neill. “That’s all it was. I’ve made a statement earlier and there’s not really much I can talk about.
“But I think we are fine. The players are fine and the man in question is fine. We are ready to go. Roy is okay, he’s here with us.”
Asked if Keane had spoken to the players about the incident, O’Neill replied: “Why would he do that? He spoke to me. The incident is over – that’s it.”
Having guided Celtic to seven major honours and a Uefa Cup final appearance during his Parkhead tenure from 2000 to 2005, O’Neill is gearing himself up for a very different experience as the opposition manager at a stadium where he was revered.
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“I must admit it will be really strange to walk into the club and take a right turn for the dressing room, rather than a left turn,” he said. “I was thinking about it the other night, actually – I don’t think I’ve ever been in the away dressing room here before.
“I am absolutely looking forward to this with the enthusiasm of a supporter. I think my experience at Celtic would reiterate that, how you feel about games like this. If you have lived in Glasgow for a couple of years, with either Celtic or Rangers, you appreciate that very much.
“I take Gordon Strachan’s point about it being Scotland’s stadium on Friday night but I think we will also get terrific vocal backing from our support. For the two away games we’ve had already in the group, we had around 600 who made a lot of noise and helped us through some difficult moments in Georgia, then around 2,500 in Germany to share with us that fantastic moment when John O’Shea scored our last minute equaliser.”
O’Neill is full of admiration for Scotland’s progress under Gordon Strachan, who succeeded him as Celtic manager, but is bullish about Irish prospects of achieving a victory which would put them six points ahead of their hosts in Group D this evening.
“We are away from home but we think we can get a result in the game,” added O’Neill. “I think we can win it and I’m sure Gordon feels the same way about his team.
“With home advantage, Scotland are favourites to win. But Germany were very strong favourites to beat us last month and we managed to get something out of that game. So we are going into this one with a lot of confidence.
“This isn’t like a 38-game league season, it’s a group where every single game is of some significance. I think it’s too early in the competition to say how significant a win would be here, but obviously the more points you can accumulate at an early stage, the better.
“When we finish up on Friday night, we’ll have played three difficult away games and will still be in the hunt regardless of the result against Scotland. It’s what we do at home at the Aviva Stadium in 2015 which will determine everything for us. But this is still a very important game for us.”
O’Neill is wary of the potential threat which could be posed to his defence by Steven Fletcher, having paid a fee of £12 million to sign the striker when he was Sunderland manager in 2012.
“Steven is a very good player,” said O’Neill. “My own view is that his goals were instrumental in keeping Sunderland up that season. He’s had some injuries but has forced his way back and is in good form at the minute.
“Scotland have been on a good run, Gordon has certainly brought some momentum to the team and the country. They did exceptionally well in the second half in Germany and might have got something out of that game.
“They followed that up by winning a must-win game at home to Georgia, then got a good draw in Poland.”
Having lost midfielders James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan to injury, O’Neill has selection issues in that department. But, while he confirmed Darron Gibson and Jeff Hendrick are in contention for those roles, he was unwilling to accede to a request from an Irish journalist for firm information.
Clearly enjoying his platform back at Celtic Park, O’Neill replied impishly: “No, I’m not giving you any indication now, there are too many Scottish supporters in here! But come to my room tonight.”
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