So said a beaming Martin O’Neill as he contemplated the heartwarming return to the training pitch at Everton of Seamus Coleman.
And the bad news?
“Obviously I can’t see him making it even if we were in the play-offs,” Ireland’s manager was forced to add. “I think it might just be too early.”
Speaking after he had unveiled his provisional squad for the upcoming qualifiers against Moldova and Wales, O’Neill didn’t disagree with the notion that captain Coleman’s absence has been a pivotal factor in Ireland’s failure to maintain the early momentum of their World Cup qualifying campaign, a stark reversal in fortunes which now sees the once table-topping team having to play 11th hour catch-up in a bid to qualify for the 2018 finals in Russia.
“He is a world-class player with his energy, ability and also his motivational skill, which is very, very strong, considering he is a quiet lad,” the manager said. “I don’t think we can afford to have our world-class players not playing for us.
It’s great to see him coming back but he has been a big miss for us.
“He has been very influential since he has been given the captaincy. He has been very strong, he’s playing for a very decent club, and of course his own game has come on in leaps and bounds since he was given the captaincy of the side.
To lose him at the time that we did was very disappointing. His influence on the back four, and the team in general, is very strong.”
The question which arises then, of course, is how do you follow the leader? O’Neill’s hope is that a couple of the younger members of his team can step up to the plate.
“As some of the players get more experienced, the likes of (Shane) Duffy, you are wanting him to come on. He is playing regularly now in the Premier League. That’s something new to him, it’s exciting to him and they (Brighton) have had a couple of victories as well.
The likes of himself and (Robbie) Brady, these are players who are getting a bit more experienced at international level and are getting used to playing in the Premier League — those things should come to the fore.”
O’Neill reckons it’s “a wee bit harsh” to charge that the breakthrough trio of Duffy, Brady, and Jeff Hendrick haven’t lived up to the expectations they created two summers ago in France.
“Well, Robbie has missed most of the (World Cup) competition, he has been suspended about 15 times,” he quipped. “Hendrick has had an injury or two.
Hendrick, of course, was coming off a brilliant Euros and he has been compared and contrasted all the time with that. He had to try and find his feet at Burnley and he might not have scaled the heights of the Euros, but in the early part of the competition, I thought he was doing an excellent job for us.
“In terms of Duffy, this experience of playing in the Premier League should help him. When I first saw Duffy play, he was playing for Yeovil on loan and he wasn’t that brilliant.
But I had faith in him and he came through, and that evening against Italy he was magnificent. I think he has done fine. If he had kept his hands down against Austria we would have got the goal, so that is my only annoyance with him.”
But, O’Neill reiterated, he is now looking for more from the new guard.
“From my own experience, the more I was playing at Nottingham Forest, the more it gave me confidence and the ability to read the games as captain a lot better. If Seamus is gone out of the side, in time the likes of Brady, Hendrick, Duffy, and any other young player of that ilk, should come through and take it upon themselves.”
Time, unfortunately, is not on Ireland’s side in the short-term with just two games left to make or break their hopes of qualification for the 2018 finals.
Can O’Neill use his influence to accelerate the maturing process?
“Why not? Absolutely. That the players are motivated to accelerate themselves in many aspects is very important but, yeah, I think that is part of my job.”
Not part of his job, however, he insists, is having to pick his men up off the floor following that 1-0 defeat to Serbia.
“I don’t think they are on the floor,” he countered. “I think they are ready to go. They have always had a good spirit among them and that spirit hasn’t diminished.”