More sensitive souls might recoil but it is only the unvarnished truth. This Irish team, for all its manifest superiority on paper over the part-timers of Gibraltar, is not so overloaded with stellar world-class talent, that it can ever allow itself to be distracted by thoughts of a stroll in the park at the Aviva Stadium. If Ireland are to win today — and, as many would demand, win handsomely — then the manager’s message is that they will have to be prepared to fight for the right to party. And if the goal glut isn’t to materialise, then victory is both the minimum and most vital requirement.
“We want to be heading to Germany with six points on the board,” he said. “That will be key.”
Regarding his thoughts on today’s other group games, it will come as no surprise to learn his preference is for Scotland and Georgia to draw in Glasgow and Germany to beat Poland in Warsaw.
Coming up against Gibraltar reminds O’Neill of his playing days with Nottingham Forest, when even the then European Cup holders could find the going tough in an FA Cup game against lowly York City. He also has the handy recent reference of England labouring a little before running up a 5-0 win against San Marino on Thursday night. And then there’s the historical reality that Irish football teams are not exactly noted for putting weaker opposition to the sword.
All of which helps explain why this past week, and again yesterday, O’Neill has been at pains to stress that Poland’s eventual 7-0 drubbing of Gibraltar was mainly a reflection on how the part-timers ran out of steam in the second half, and only after they’d come very close to going in 1-1 at end of the first 45.
“In the first half, you were seeing Gibraltar at their strongest,” he said. “Even when they went a goal down, they didn’t change the system. They got men behind ball and worked exceptionally hard. They were as honest as the day is long. And they only conceded the goals when they were trying manfully to get back into the game.
“We will have to try everything to break them down, try to keep possession of the ball and move it quickly enough to make openings. In the early stages of their match, Gibraltar were happy just for Poland to have the ball. I would have said that until they got the goal, the game was played largely in front of Gibraltar, and Gibraltar were quite happy. We will have to make inroads into breaking them down.”
Poland might have set the group bar high with seven goals but since goal difference will only come into play after other criteria are employed to separate countries which finish on the same points, that healthy tally could conceivably count for nought at the end. O’Neill admitted he’s happy that’s the case but, at the same time, remains conscious that if the head-to-head stats aren’t enough to determine qualification, goals against Gibraltar could yet prove a decisive factor.
“It would be nice to cover all bases, if at all possible,” he said. “If you’d said to any Polish player at half-time that they’d score seven in the match, they would probably have laughed at you. In the end, they came out of the game brilliantly, not only with the points but with a substantial goal difference. If it does eventually boil down to it and we haven’t got the required number of goals, then we’ve not been good enough. But I am pleased other criteria come into play.”
It’s not hard to see why.
“Traditionally, we’re not phenomenal goalscorers,” he acknowledges. “So we have to create chances in the game because we’ll miss one or two. We’ll have to be really positive from moment one but also be a wee bit careful at the back not to leave ourselves stretched. GIbraltar had opportunities they didn’t finish against Poland and then obviously they got tired. But they’ll have learned a lot from that particular experience.
“We would have to try to be on the front foot immediately, get some tempo to the game and don’t let a 10 or 15-minute period drift where nothing happens. But that’s easier said than done. Of course, there will be moments when we will not be able to break them down or it might take three or four more passes than the crowd might like.”
O’Neill has had to walk a tricky tightrope in public this week. On the one hand, he can’t — as he keeps repeating — consider the job done until it’s done. But neither does he want to be making Gibraltar out to be anything significantly greater than what they really are — an unranked team in world football whose very presence at this level even causes some to question the merit of having to play matches against them at all.
“Let’s be honest, we should win,” he concludes. “I’m not going to hide behind that.”
* The Gibraltar Football Association was formed in 1895. It was admitted as Uefa’s 54th full member in May 2013 after a 20-year campaign.
* The national team tasted victory for the first time in just its fifth senior international fixture in June when Kyle Casciaro’s goal was enough to secure a 1-0 home win over Malta. However, the going was a little tougher when they opened their qualifying campaign last month with a 7-0 defeat by Poland.
* That historic opening ‘home’ fixture was played 150 miles from Gibraltar at the Algarve Stadium in Faro, Portugal, as the Victoria Stadium on ‘the Rock’ does not meet Uefa criteria. A new 8,000-capacity national stadium is currently under construction at Europa Point.
* Nine members of Allen Bula’s squad play their football for Lincoln Red Imps FC, who currently sit in fourth place in Gibraltar’s Premier League table after three games, although they have won the title in each of the last 12 seasons.
* Bula, 49, played for domestic sides Manchester 62, Gibraltar United FC, St Joseph’s FRAC and Glacis United FC and Gibraltar’s U21s before his career was brought to a premature conclusion by injury at the age of just 22. He was involved with the youth teams at Dover Rangers and Dover Athletic while studying in England, but got his break in academy coaching at FC Kosice in Slovakia, where Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic was one of the men who emerged from the ranks.
* Three members of the squad are currently playing their football in England — defender Scott Wiseman at League One Preston, midfielder Jake Gosling at Conference side Bristol Rovers and striker Adam Priestley at non-league Farsley.
* Priestley was born in Gibraltar while his father was serving with the RAF. He has scored three goals in his last two club games – against Glasshoughton Welfare and Radcliffe Borough.
* Gibraltar has a population of just under 30,000, making it the smallest country to hold Uefa membership ahead of San Marino, Liechtenstein and the Faroe Islands.
* The island has been ruled by Britain since 1713 under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, but its sovereignty continues to be disputed by Spain.
* Notable natives include singer-songwriter Albert Hammond, who was born in London to Gibraltarian parents and raised on the Rock, and fashion designer John Galliano.
- by Damien Spellman