Rep of Ireland v Sweden
Group E, Monday, 5pm
Stade de France, Paris
TV: RTÉ 2, BBC
In the cool shade of the stand, hundreds of local school kids and ex-pat youngsters who’d been given tickets by the Irish embassy in Paris, did the Mexican Wave, chanted ‘Allez Irelande’ and screamed repeatedly for ‘Robbeee’.
Down on the pitch, where there was no escape from the unforgiving sun, the same Robbie and the rest of the Irish squad — minus Jon Walters who continued to do his own thing under the watchful eye of a physio — worked up a prodigious sweat in a high- intensity training game.
And then, when the session was over, and while the players were kicking footballs into the delighted crowd and signing autographs, there came another contrast on the opposite side of the pitch as Martin O’Neill faced the media for the first time since the news of his and Roy Keane’s new contract had been released by the FAI.
If we had been expecting a display of unalloyed delight on the part of the Derryman at the extension of his management tenure through to the next World Cup — as things turned out, we’d have to wait for an a later FAI TV interview for the metaphorical thumbs up — what we actually got instead might best be described as terse confirmation that a deal had been sealed and delivered, though not yet signed.
“John (Delaney) and I have shaken hands on an extension and that’s fine by me,” he said, sounding like he would be only too happy to leave any further discussion with the media about the matter at that. But, of course, we wanted to know more, specifically why his thinking had changed from when he previously indicated that he’d prefer to wait to see how Ireland would perform at the Euros before committing to a new deal.
“John essentially was wanting to do it, he was looking for a bit of continuity like everything else,” said O’Neill. “He’s persuaded me to do it.”
Would he not still be concerned that the picture could look very different after the tournament?
“Well, I always have that view anyway. Always. But if that’s something the FAI wanted to do then I’m happy to go along with it. I’ve shaken hands on the deal and I’m going with it. I can’t really say much more than that.”
He wasn’t a whole lot more forthcoming when asked whether he knew if businessman Denis O’Brien was still helping to fund the management team’s wages.
“No, I don’t know.” Would it matter to him either way?
“Yes, I think it would matter, of course, if someone is contributing to the wages. I’d feel delighted if that was the case. Denis had done it the time before and if it’s a continuation of that there, then it’s something…
“That wasn’t mentioned when I was speaking to John but if it’s the case that Denis has continued to do so then I’m very grateful.”
Roy Keane has indicated he’s in it for the long haul as well?
“He’s indicated exactly that.”
Might he follow you as Ireland manager?
“I wouldn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t. Genuinely, I don’t see why that would be a problem for him.”
As for himself, could this be O’Neill’s last job in management?
“Who knows? It’s football.”
Maybe it’s just the company of us scurvy hacks that puts him off but when, later back at the team hotel, O’Neill sat in front of the cameras for the FAI website, he came across as altogether more upbeat about his and his staff’s new agreement, describing it as “a done deal”, revealing he’d been “mulling it over for some time” and expressing the hope that it allowed all concerned to go to the Euros with “a free mind”.
He also dismissed any perceived significance in the absence thus far of his signature on the dotted line, noting that when he originally took up the Ireland job there was a gap of a number of weeks between him and FAI boss John Delaney shaking hands on a deal and the new manager actually putting pen to paper.
“Here we are two and half years on and I will have to assume the same thing will apply to both parties and I’m absolutely delighted to do so,” he said with a broad smile.
Earlier, O’Neill had also expressed delight at the squad’s Versailles base.
“First of all, the hotel is terrific,” he enthused. “We acquired that some months ago and that was really great. The facilities we came out and had a look at a few months ago too and the pitch has improved immensely. I can’t ask for any better really. And the weather so far is excellent, although it wasn’t so good out here last week. And I think the players are thriving on it.
“If you’re talking about preparations for the last 10 or 12 days; when we were down in Cork we were blessed with incredible weather while parts of Paris were under water not so long ago. But we’ve arrived here and it’s terrific — so we couldn’t have any complaints.”
So, concern about Jon Walters aside, would he be happy to say Irish preparations for the Euros are all firmly on course to peak at the right time — namely, when the real deal arrives next Monday evening in the Stade de France?
“Well, sometimes it works out that you have everything there at your and you think things are going great — and then you play the games and it’s a totally different issue. If I can compare it to Northern Ireland away back in 1982 – and I will mention this for the last time — we had a few difficulties out there but it didn’t matter, we were ready to go.”
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