‘No pain, no gain’ would appear to be Martin O’Neill’s mantra as, going into Saturday’s game against the USA, his Ireland side are still looking for a first win since the memorable but now very distant 1-0 victory over Wales in Cardiff last October.
Since then, Ireland have drawn away with Denmark before suffering that heavy loss in the second leg of their World Cup play-off and, this year, tasted defeat in two friendlies in Antalya and now Paris, as well as drawing with a Celtic selection in Scott Brown’s testimonial.
But, on the back of another chastening evening in France, O’Neill insists the 2-0 scoreline in favour of Les Bleus was not a source of disappointment to him.
“The reason for friendly matches is to try some things,” he said.
“We have chosen to play away in Turkey in March, not a home game, and chosen to play against France. And it would be no surprise to anyone to find out that France would be in the final four of the World Cup. That’s the standard.
“So getting beaten the other night is not a disappointment to me in that sense. I think if you looked at the two teams, the calibre of the opposition and the choice that we have in terms of where the players are playing and leagues they’re playing in, I don’t think it was a major surprise.”
For O’Neill, it’s all about the lessons he hopes his players can learn in time to bring the the results to bear in a positive way when the competitive stuff resumes for Ireland in September.
“The point is that when we have the ball, we have to try and use it a bit better,” he said.
I don’t think we can ever stop trying to improve on that, trying to make chances and create things. Either one-on-one situations or a little one-two and just not to be depending on set-pieces. And, yeah, it’s to have that quality. You saw that quality on Monday night in abundance in the opposition. That is what we’re trying to get to. It’s a long stretch but we have to try and do it.
“To me, the friendly games are for some of these players to try to find out what they’re capable of in the length of time they play.
“And, secondly, that if they are chosen then at least they have some experience of international football so, when the main event comes, they are as ready as they possibly can be.
“And not everybody will be in that aspect so this is the best preparation for that.
“In terms of friendly matches, I don’t know what sort of store we have held them in before. You like to win the games, absolutely — it would be great, fantastic — but, at the end of it, it’s a friendly game and it’s all geared up to the matches ahead which is the important thing. I think some of the players who were there the other night, and who may get an opportunity again, will have been delighted to have been on the same pitch as some of these world class players that they see every single week (on television).”
Alan Browne, who had a fine domestic season playing mainly as a number 10 with Preston, was unable to replicate that kind of performance level in Paris.
Asked if that was indicative of the gap between Championship and international football or, perhaps, because he was playing a different role for country as opposed to club, the manager was unequivocal.
“It’s the former, of course. That’s exactly what it is. It’s the step-up. I think we all (recognise that). I’ve played international football and in my early days as a player I found it very difficult, The matches were very, very hard. It was only when I was playing European football with Nottingham Forest and competing and winning big trophies that I found I could deal with it better. I was 25 or 26 at that time and I could deal with the football better. And I don’t think that’s changed a bit.
“This is a massive step-up. The French players were athletic and lean, brilliant on the ball and really good players. That is not the player, with respect, that young Browne is playing against every single week. It’s nothing to do with a different role. He’s a midfield player for Preston. I’ve seen Browne over the last two years about 20 times and I don’t see his role changing.
“He’s a midfield player, sometimes he changes position which is what they want at Preston because they own him as a player. He played the other night in the game and it’s a massive step-up, it’s an incredible step-up, and that’s what you have to try to cope with.
“And that’s what all these players have to try and do. They have to try and go from this football that they play in the Championship — where it’s very competitive and sometimes it’s compelling but it’s not the quality that you’re talking about here that these players were up against (on Monday). And I think it’s a great experience even if he hasn’t come off all that well at the end. But talking about the step up — it’s like comparing day and night.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill suggested that Stoke City’s proposed move for James McClean could only be of benefit to the player.
“I think that particular manager (Gary Rowett) when he was at Derby tried to buy him in January time and for one reason or another it didn’t materialise. I think James would feel if this was a chance with a manager who liked his contributions to games and would give him the opportunity to play more matches than he perhaps was doing at West Bromwich Albion, then I’m sure he’s definitely in favour of that. James is one of those players who needs to play matches.
“While he’s very, very fit, that would certainly give him a certain match sharpness that he needs, that all players need, and if it did materialise and that’s what he wanted, I think it can only be good for him.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved