Unbeaten, and with Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Austria in Vienna making it three wins out of four in this World Cup campaign, Ireland now find themselves two points clear of Serbia and four ahead of Wales after the latter two sides drew 1-1 in Cardiff at the weekend.
As for the Austrians, they are now a full six points adrift of the Irish following that terrific result for the visitors in the Ernst-Happel Stadium.
But even with four of Ireland’s remaining six games next year taking place in Dublin, O’Neill insists the road to Russia is still long and could yet prove winding. And he notes he has his own recent experience with Ireland to support his note of caution.
“After four games in the Euros, we’d just been beaten by Scotland at this time a couple of years ago and the home games felt as if they were going to be vital,” he observes.
“We didn’t win the next two home games – we drew with Poland, through a late goal, and with Scotland who I felt we should have beaten. So I’m not going to go back on what I said. I think the matches in 2017 at the Aviva, naturally, are going to be big for us.
“But ask me where we’re going, at the end of this year? I’m delighted now at this minute. Players go back now and deal with big club matches over Christmas time, and then I’ll start thinking about it in January.”
In the meantime, he’s happy to acknowledge the sense this Irish team is an international side which can genuinely boast a club ethos.
“Yes, I do think we have that,” he says. “The most important thing is the players do enjoy coming. They want to play for their country, obviously, and I think there’s a good spirit there. Some of the senior lads help promote that. I think John O’Shea is excellent at doing that. And we’re not too bad ourselves, with the backroom staff, in helping things.
“And then there’s Seamus Coleman – he wants to play for his country and he’s just showing it out there on the field. He’s a great player. At club level, he’s shown his worth and he’s taken that captaincy on for us like you wouldn’t believe. He’s just been terrific for us in the games. In Vienna, he obviously had to deal with (Marko) Arnautovic on that side of it and then he had to deal with keeping everybody else going. It was an evening for him and he was absolutely and utterly up to the task.”
Adding to the satisfaction of Saturday’s win was Ireland coped with having to field a depleted side even before the loss of Glenn Whelan allowed David Meyler to show what he can still offer at this level.
“We’ve had to do that before,” O’Neill points out. “I think if you look at the team we had to put out in Moldova, we were missing both (Robbie) Brady and (Jeff) Hendrick and, just after the Euros, you wouldn’t have wanted to be going into a World Cup qualifying game without those players playing. But it happens to us. It’ll happen to us again in March – Brady’s already out (for the game against Wales, after getting yellow carded for kicking the ball away). Sometimes in the heat of the moment I think you might forget you’ve been booked before in a game. We had a number of players carrying bookings. And that’s a shame because Brady has been great for us. But the people who’ve come in have gone and shown – I know I use these words ‘strength of character’ – but that’s what it’s been.”
Including the near- forgotten man Aiden McGeady, who got the nod ahead of Callum O’Dowda and Daryl Horgan to come off the bench late on in Vienna.
“You mentioned young Horgan who has done very well in training,” says O’Neill. “As has the centre-half (Andy) Boyle. They’ve been excellent and not looked out of place at all, and that’s good. They’ve gained great confidence from that European run and that’s great. But throwing someone on with ten minutes left in the game, or whatever it was, I think it would be a big ask for
someone like Horgan, and the last thing you want to do is be making a mistake.
“I felt Aiden dealt very well with a couple of situations, extricated himself from one really difficult one, and then played a ball Jon Walters or Jeff Hendrick started to take up the field again. But I’ve never doubted Aiden’s ability. He has real ability in the final third of the field, which is the most important thing. That’s where he comes alive. But he has to help himself too. I think he should take some solace,or a bit of strength from the fact that the minute he’s fit again I’ve included him in the squad.
“He has shown his worth before – I know I’m going back a little while - but he did start it all off for us in Georgia. Now, what he wants to do is remind himself of that and get back to that sort of form. Which I think he can do.”
Indeed, with Christmas coming early for Ireland in Group D, everything suddenly seems possible.