Given the way his assistant manager had been at the centre of some unflattering headlines over the previous 48 hours, the strong temptation was to open the questioning by asking if Roy Keane had now become the official inconvenience story for the Ireland manager.
In fact, O’Neill had come prepared to deal with the inevitable, so much so that when the first query actually turned out to be an icebreaker about Ireland’s Euro qualifying campaign to date, the Derry man feigned disappointment and, referring to the FAI media officer seated beside him, brought the house down by quipping: “I’ve lost my bet with Peter...”
Not, of course, that he had to wait very much longer before Keane’s involvement in an alleged road rage incident in Manchester on Friday was front and centre-stage.
“I can’t say it doesn’t bother me. Of course it might be a concern,” O’Neill began. “But I’ve spoken to Roy about it and, like everything else, I’ve been prepared to listen to what he has said. Mountain out of a molehill comes to mind immediately. I think eventually when the whole thing has been investigated, that will be the case.”
Asked if he could reveal details of his conversation with Keane, O’Neill, as is his wont, opted to take the comedic route. “I doorstepped him and he just slammed it in my bleak, bleak face and then he opened it up again and said; is it you? And I said it is, and he was fine. After that, the conversation? I can’t tell you.”
But you’re okay with him?
“Absolutely. I enjoy it, I enjoy his company, I think he’s good for the team. I think it’s great and, do you know what, I’d bet it won’t be the last altercation he’ll be in again between now and, I’d say, I’ll give him ‘til next weekend (laughs). These situations, I think I can handle. I don’t think they are a distraction. If it wasn’t this, it would be something else.”
For O’Neill, what matters most is Keane’s influence within the camp.
“I’m not so sure that Seamus Coleman is actually concerned this morning about whether Roy has had some sort of altercation with a taxi man in Manchester. I don’t think he is too worried about that. If you were to ask Seamus, he would say his contribution to us trying to win some football matches is something he would fully be in agreement with.”
The manager then went on to spell out the positive contribution he believes his assistant makes.
“He has a great presence really, particularly with players now at that stage of their career who have been very impressed by his football ability and what he has done for club and country. I don’t think that he shows the type of arrogance that seems to be associated with him, quite the opposite; I think he is very amenable to players who may have been in a bit of awe and a wee bit scared about him in the first place. They have no problem whatsoever approaching him and asking for some advice. With the time that we have with the players when we are here, he does very well.
“But what he also tries to do as well... I was speaking to him the other day, I wanted to try and find out a wee bit of news about some of the players and we were hoping to just go regional and grab hold of a couple of the players. While I know their mind is completely focused on club football at the moment, and the Poland game seems a million miles away, to me it seems almost around the corner.
“I haven’t spoken to Roberto (Martinez) since he said that his problems half came from his international matches, when he played one game for us in the last year. He didn’t play in June, we let him off, so I don’t know how Roberto could blame the international matches for his injury. I think he’s pretty well close to fitness which would be great because he’s an important player for club and country.”
“The prognosis seemed to be four to six weeks from the time of the injury which still, with a bit of luck, gives us some time. But sometimes these injuries go well for a little period of time, 10 days, and then suddenly there’s no improvement for another 10 days. So we’ll have to monitor that one. But I’d still be hopeful.”
“(How much he plays for Stoke) is up to the manager and how Stephen performs. No, there has been no contact, no.”
“You’re looking at League One and scoring some goals there but you have to make a judgment call on whether you feel they can come and step up. Eoin is one example but I’m talking about other players too. I don’t think I’d be in a position to rule anybody out.”
“Really nice little footballer. I watched him again on Friday night, I spoke to the manager about him as well who said he’s been doing exceptionally well. And he has a lot of enthusiasm for it. If players I’m monitoring have a real strong ambition to play for the Republic, it’s good.”
“Noel King was particularly impressed with him. I’ve actually been able to see, amazingly, Watford three times in the last 16 days so it’s been nice to get a decent update. Noel’s mentioned a few other players who might be worth checking on but, in fairness, I don’t think there are too many players playing either here or in Scotland that we haven’t checked on one way or another.”
“He has no problem getting the north-western boys together, particularly Darron Gibson — he wanted to have a conversation with him to see how he was, that type of stuff. I think he can do that and while I think there might have been an initial element of concern with the players that Roy might overawe them in some aspect, I don’t think that is the case at all. I’ve been particularly pleased with him and I’m trying to explain here that those are some of the reasons.”
For his part, in seeking to clarify some confusion arising out of a recent BBC Radio interview — in which his use of the words “full-on” was erroneously reported as “forlorn” and his demeanour written up as “downbeat” — O’Neill yesterday came across as a man not one bit lacking in enthusiasm for his current job. He cited a recent conversation with Mick McCarthy in which they agreed the big gaps between games are always a problem for international managers. That apart, he insisted he had much to be happy about in the Irish job
“I am delighted to be here,” he said. “It is a genuine privilege to be managing the football club — and it is to me a football club in that sense. It is genuinely a really great honour.
“Every time I see, at club level, when somebody doesn’t win a game or two games, they find themselves talking about long-term projects. I really maybe should go into this. I should give you a spiel about long-term projects and how I want to be here for the next 48 years.
“I want to try and win the games and us to qualify if we can. It has been difficult because we are in a tough old group, but even so, that makes it all the more exciting. I think we can win and I’ll do everything in my power to do so. But I want to make the point I am far from downbeat. I am completely the opposite, I really am.”