Ireland walk it like they talk it in 'fiery dressing room'

Even though the Group D table tells the only tale that ultimately matters, Ireland have shipped a fair amount of critical flak from pundits and punters en route to going joint top with Serbia on the long road to Russia.
Ireland walk it like they talk it in 'fiery dressing room'

But, even before Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane get to have their say, it’s the players who are their own worst — and best — critics, according to the always straight-talking Jon Walters.

“We can say things and it won’t get taken to heart,” he said. “It’s in the game and it’s forgotten about. We have characters and we’re not afraid to say things to each other and it’s a great trait to have. It was pretty fiery in the dressing room again on Sunday. There were some choice words at half-time, as there were the other night (against Georgia). But you take it on the chin and we came out much better in the second-half — so it worked.”

It was also pretty fiery at times out on the pitch in Chisinau, O’Neill at one point entering the fray to restrain Walters from retaliating against a nasty challenge and perhaps paying an even heavier price than the yellow card he received for his troubles.

“I got studs in the chest,” Walters explains. “Ah, it happens. It got a little bit heated towards the end but games like that will. We just try and keep our heads. There was a little naughty one on Callum (O’Dowda) just before it that wasn’t very nice and the referee let it go when he shouldn’t have. But yeah, we have to stick together and see these games through.”

Echoing his manager’s comments this week, Walters suggests that this Irish team must always be prepared to fight for the right to party.

“Yeah, look, the likes of Moldova and Georgia, they’re not easy games,” he said. “They have a way of playing and you can compare it to a cup game where you’re playing a lower league team. They have a game plan and they work on it very hard and they execute it.

“The first-half on Sunday, we should have seen it out with the ball in the corner (in the build-up to the Moldovan equaliser). Like I said, there were some choice words said at half-time but I think if we’d made the right decisions in the final third we could have been two or three up going into the break. But the second-half was much better. In the end, it’s about getting the points, it’s not about performance. But it’s a long road yet to go.”

Walters’ indomitable warrior spirit was a key factor in seeing him emerge as Ireland’s player of the Euros qualifying campaign, making him an ideal person to judge the growing influence in the team of James McClean, the two-goal hero of Chisinau and another who needs no invitation to roll his sleeves up in the national cause.

“I was delighted for him on Sunday,” said Walters. “We needed a goal in the second half and he popped up with it. He scored two and hopefully he gets a few more between now and the end of the group. He works his socks off on the left — sometimes on the right — and it’s not an easy position and it’s unforgiving when you have to chase back a lot. But he got the plaudits the other night and hopefully he can work on his free kicks and get a couple more (laughs).

“He’s a good lad, James,” said Walters when pressed on the Derryman. “He can be a bit (short pause) stupid with what he says in the press down the years but he’s learning. We haven’t a bad lad in the group, everyone gets on. James is a good lad and we’ll keep him under wraps.”

With seven points from three games, Ireland are now nicely set up for the last qualifier of the year, and it’s a big one — Austria in Vienna on November 12.

“Yeah, it’s a huge game,” Walters agreed. “I’m sure there will be plenty of twists and turns between now and the end of the group. It’s never plain sailing for us — we’re not a team like a Germany, Brazil, Spain or Italy where we’re favourites for every game. We have to fight for every point. We did that this past week. It’s going to be a difficult campaign and the next game coming up is going to be huge. It’s back to our clubs for a few weeks in between and I’m sure Austria will be smarting from their result in Serbia (a 3-2 defeat) and will want three points against us.”

By the time Christmas comes around, Ireland will already have done a lot of heavy lifting in a group which, thanks to the fixture schedule, was front-loaded with away games for O’Neill’s team.

The upside is that, after next month’s trip to Vienna, Ireland won’t have another away day until September 2017 when they travel to the familiar destination of Tbilisi for the return match against Georgia.

Before that, they have successive home games, in March and June, against Wales and Austria respectively, and then, after the Georgians away, they are home to Serbia and Moldova before finishing up in Cardiff against Wales on October 9 next year.

There’s a long way to go, to be sure, but if Ireland could take at least a point home from Austria next month, they would have more than just the glories of the summer in France to make 2016 a year to remember.

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