Just off the training pitch at Abbotstown, Stephen Quinn, one of those players who might or might not be going to France, was asked if he thinks he can read Martin O’Neill’s intentions.
“No,” he laughed, “can you?”
Twenty minutes later, the manager was sitting in the media room, when he was informed about Quinn’s comment.
“Well, I’m quite pleased with that,” came the suitably enigmatic response.
We might now be into squeaky bum time for all concerned with Ireland’s mission to France, but O’Neill is the only one with the answers. And it’s looking increasingly as if Quinn, among a handful of other players who are not nailed on for a place in the travelling party, will have to wait until virtually the 11th hour — after the game against Belarus in Cork on Tuesday — before they learn the manager’s final decision, and Ireland’s squad of 23 becomes one of the last to be submitted, in the teeth of the tournament deadline, to Uefa.
11pm Irish time —or 10.59pm to be precise — is the cut-off point on Tuesday but O’Neill insisted yesterday that he is not engaging in any kind of mind game with his players by pushing things right to the wire.
“If Italy and Belgium and any other nation have (already) decided this is what they’re going with and have left some players out, that is their prerogative,” O’Neill said. “I’m not in it for a guessing game. If a lot of the players had played the amount of football I’d have liked, then I might have made my mind up early. It’s definitely not one of those, regardless of what young Quinn says. I’m not here to have mind games with them.”
In determining who will fill the couple of vacant slots, O’Neill said he would take a number of factors into consideration.
“Fitness will naturally be one of them. Some boys might have missed a couple of games but are still naturally fit. Others take longer. And because we have to play these two games, because we need the matches, you run the risk of someone picking up an injury. We actually run the risk at training here. I saw a couple of the lads going down today and it was disconcerting for a second or two. All of those things will come into my consideration, which they have been for a while, but it’s getting closer now.”
O’Neill revealed he expected to be in a position over the weekend to privately tell “90% of the squad” they’ve made the Euros panel; for the remainder, it will come down to the last chance saloon of the game in Turner’s Cross.
“I think if I was player,” O’Neill mused, “and I had an opportunity still, and that opportunity was Tuesday night to play, and it was announced afterwards if I’d made it or hadn’t made — I think I’d want to take my chance on that. And I think that’s how the players feel.”
By way of example, he related a conversation he had with the US-based Kevin Doyle. “I said: ‘listen, Kevin. I feel that you wouldn’t be starting in Friday’s game (against the Netherlands), so why not get another game with Colorado and fly over for the Tuesday game’. I think he’s pretty pleased to do that. I just felt that, on Friday, he might not start the game, and it’s a very long distance to travel from Colorado. It’s a different situation for Robbie (Keane) because Robbie is the captain of the team and I feel that as the captain he should be here and he wanted to be here.”
It was suggested to O’Neill, however, that it’s a long way for Doyle to come for just one match, and with no guarantee that he’ll have the reward he wants at the end of the night.
“No,” was his unequivocal reply. “If I was in the Chinese league and somebody asked me to come and I had a chance to play for Northern Ireland, I’d say ‘yeah’. This is your chance.”
Opportunity would appear to be knocking particularly hard in midfield, where the likes of the aforementioned Quinn and Harry Arter are among those still entitled to feel they can stake a claim.
“I don’t think I should individualise here at the minute,” O’Neill parried, “but you know there are certain players here who, if they come through these games, will be on the plane for what they have done (but) someone can make a late charge to try and get into the side.”
Which is where, shortly before O’Neill had his say, Quinn came in. He began by noting his delight that he recently got home to Dublin in time to see another name from the famous football family — his 12-year-old nephew Ben — win all-Ireland honours with Stephen’s former schoolboy club Cherry Orchard. And then the kicker: “He’s constantly asking me if I am going to the Euros. And I have no answers for him.”
Does this week remind the Reading midfielder a little of his own trials as a kid?
“Kind of, because you want to make the plane. We’re all battling and working hard to catch the eye. You can’t rest on your laurels and what you’ve done throughout the campaign. It’s about the here and the now. There are quality players around. I’ve got that feeling in my stomach where it could be me (left out), and then if I do stay, it’d be great — but I’d have that sympathy for them. It’s upsetting but that’s the way the manager wants to do it and you just have to get on with it.
“I understand he’s got tough decisions to make, so we’ll see.”
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