Ireland’s disastrous campaign in Poland four years ago, when finishing with the worst record in the history of the competition, led to a drip of stories about players reportedly disenchanted by rigid training schedules and an absence of down time.
“I’ll get them to watch Action Man,” said a deadpan O’Neill after first regaling the media about a recent trip of his own to the cinema. “How can you get bored at the Euros? You can’t. Some of my group are very boring anyway.
“Northern Ireland in ’82? You couldn’t possibly get bored, and there’s more things to do now. You can get bored later on. Seriously, how can you possibly get bored at the Euros? I’ll entertain them. I’m actually a brilliant entertainer.”
Long faces will clearly not be countenanced.
The Republic’s build-up to Euro 2016 in France began only yesterday morning at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, with 24 players free and fit to take part in the opening session. O’Neill was due to sit down with them last night to garner opinions on the weeks to come.
Managers in various codes have used outside voices to break the monotony of camp life and inspire the troops all at once, but O’Neill has no plans to copy his Northern Ireland namesake Michael who has Rory McIlroy speaking to his squad at their Carton House camp this week.
It’s unlikely, too, that psychologists or psychiatrists will be ushered in for support, given O’Neill got great joy in recalling how Ray Parlour never played for England again after asking Eileen Drewery, the spiritual healer used by then coach Glenn Hoddle, for a “short back and sides” in 1996.
“What I always found with these psychologists is that on their CV they always say how well they’ve done with a club. A year later, that team gets relegated and they’re not there anymore. They’ve moved on to another club, which appears on their CV.
“I haven’t thought about bringing someone in. I genuinely think that’s my job. If it meant someone came in to entertain, yeah, I’ve already someone in mind, but not to be giving a team talk, because that’s my job, and if I can’t do it, and Roy Keane can’t do it, well, that’s what I get paid for.”
Boredom should hardly be a concern, and pep talks unnecessary, this next week or more, as O’Neill runs the rule over his squad before shaving it back to the required 23. Saturday had been mentioned as D-Day in that regard, but this day week now appears more likely.
That gives players an abundance of training sessions and the two friendly games — against the Netherlands at the Aviva Stadium on Friday and Belarus in Turner’s Cross next Tuesday — to stake a claim, though the manager reiterated that 90% of the squad is already picked.
The whittling down process began in earnest yesterday with Anthony Pilkington, Jonathan Hayes, Paul McShane, and Alex Pearce released from the squad of 35 — though they remain on standby — while Marc Wilson ruled himself out of contention. Wilson hasn’t played a competitive game since the end of January when he injured medial ligaments in his knee and, with O’Neill happy enough to have Stephen Ward and Robbie Brady covering at left-back, that opens the door to France for Shane Duffy.
The Blackburn Rovers defender made the most of what was only his second senior cap when named man of the match after the 1-0 friendly defeat of Switzerland in March and he may well now join John O’Shea, Ciaran Clark, and Richard Keogh on the plane.
“He got the game there in the end of March and I thought he did really fine,” said O’Neill of his fellow Derry man. “I don’t want to put everything into one game he has played, but that’s fine, and he has played all season as well.”
The only other injury worry, Wilson apart, concerns Everton’s James McCarthy. The midfielder has had two scans on a thigh issue and isn’t believed to be a major concern, though he may not be risked for the Dutch game later this week.
Other absentees yesterday included Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle, who are due in from the USA at different stages this week, while David Meyler (Hull City), Kieren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), and David Forde (Millwall) are involved in English league play-offs this weekend.