Despite having made exceedingly heavy weather of salvaging a point against Austria, Ireland remain on course for the World Cup finals in Russia, by Liam Mackey .
But this latest proof that, with four games remaining, qualification will be anything but plain-sailing is certainly not lost on Martin O’Neill. Indeed, he has even hinted that having to do it the hard way may better suit the Irish football temperament.
“We’re in a dogfight and maybe that’s no bad thing,” he says. “I think there’s a strength about the side. We lack a few things — but heart is not one of them. This group continues to prove to be a really tight affair with all three games on Sunday ending in draws. We remain unbeaten and joint top, alongside Serbia, after six games and it is still all to play for. Next up (in September) is a very difficult trip to Georgia before a quick turnaround a couple of days later at home to Serbia. Naturally, with only four games left every point is precious.”
First up on the agenda for the manager is a cold light of day review of Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Austria. But though his immediate reaction was “a sense of frustration” at the outcome — born largely out of the referee’s decision to disallow what O’Neill thought was a legitimate goal by Shane Duffy — O’Neill is not hiding from the fact that the quality of his team’s first-half performance was well below what is required.
“It’s a 90-minute game,” he says. “You don’t want to be trailing in matches here and fighting for your lives to get something out of it. We have to address that. The whole intention was to get on the front foot and we did anything but in the first 15 minutes. And our sloppy play allowed them to take their time and work their way into the game and, as a consequence, we finally conceded.”
In the build-up to Sunday’s match, O’Neill had spoken about the psychological benefit of knowing that you absolutely must win a game — as was the case on what turned out to be a famous night for Irish football with that 1-0 victory over Italy in Lille during Euro 2016.
But since all the pressure to win appeared to be on the Austrians on Sunday, does O’Neill think that this somehow had an opposite and inhibiting effect on his own side?
“I don’t think so. I think we were a wee bit nervous at the start and Austria played their way into the game. Suddenly they’re thinking, ‘we’ll quell the crowd’ and they felt quite comfortable. So we had to take them out of that comfort zone they were in. We had to do better.
“Our intention was to win that game. Talking to Paul McGrath and Keith Andrews after the game (they acknowledged that this can happen). With the best intentions in the world, you think you are absolutely and utterly ready but then a couple of things happen, and you just can’t get any momentum going.
“And that was the case. But we fought back and we’re still in the competition.” More than that, Ireland’s destiny is still very much in their own hands. Win their remaining four games and they top the group and secure automatic qualification.
“Hmm,” O’Neill responds with a sardonic smile, “piece of cake that. Absolutely. But four out of six points against Austria is a lot for us considering they have some very good players in their midst. And I think it’s there for us.
“I think we’ll have to try and win our home games (Serbia and Moldova) for a start. Next, the two games in September come up. Georgia away is a big match for us and then the turnaround is very quick for Serbia. We’ve four games left and we have to get points on the board. We think we can do it.”
O’Neill insists he is not overly concerned about the fact that, having done so much heavy lifting on the road in the first half of the campaign, his team have now dropped four points in successive home games.
“No, and the reason I’m saying this is I thought we went into the Wales game pretty depleted so I was happy to get something out of it on that particular day. As for Austria, if it had worked the other way — if we’d won on Sunday and drawn in Austria — we’d be saying that was great. Yes, we’ve dropped some points there but I’m disappointed the referee’s not given Shane Duffy’s goal. I still think it was a legitimate goal.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.