After yesterday’s draw in Nyon had pitted Ireland against Bosnia and Herzegovina in November’s European Championship play-off, Martin O’Neill was gathered around a table with a small group of Irish journalists in UEFA’s ‘House Of Football’, when a staffer came in and began handing out sheets of paper containing confirmation of the dates of next month’s games.
A quick glance revealed that the date of the first leg would be, for those so inclined, regarded as inauspicious. So, with tongue firmly in cheek, I had to ask the question: “Martin, are you superstitious? Because I see the away match is on Friday 13th.”
His reaction was surprising. Just outside the window, the sun might have been illuminating the calm waters of Lake Geneva, but it’s hardly much of an exaggeration to suggest that, as the manager looked down at the fixture list in front of him, he almost gave a little shudder. “Yeah, yeah… Friday and Monday…I’ll refrain from that.”
Was he one for superstitions as a player?
“If truth be known, I would have said that 95 percent of players are superstitious, absolutely,” he replied. “If you did something really well in a game, you’d try to remember what you did beforehand. And you would continue that for a while until you changed and stuck with another superstition.”
But, seriously, Martin – Friday 13th , it isn’t really a thing with you, is it?
A thin smile: “I’ll not go there. You can stick it in…”
The Ireland manager might be one of those who feels he has no control over the baleful gods, but he certainly intends to do everything within his own powers to have his players fully prepared for the opposition they will face next month.
“First of all, we’ll do as much research and homework as we possibly can in the next couple of weeks,” O’Neill said. “The advantage these days more than ever before is that so much information is almost at your fingertips. It’s not live but we’re seeing players.
“Ger Dunne (FAI analyst) who runs it for us is very, very good and we’ll meet with him on Thursday, I think. He will come over and we’ll run it over with Roy, myself and the backroom staff. We always meet up in some place in Birmingham. So we’ll do that and have the day with that and run through all their games from morning until night.
“We’ll have as much information as we can, not only for ourselves but also to try and impart some of this in an almost folded-up version to the players.”
Normally, the Irish management’s work with the squad is limited to the few days they have with them around internationals but, for next month’s make-or-break tie, O’Neill plan is to have suitably tailored DVDs of 15 or 20 minutes’ duration sent to each player in advance.
“It would be worthwhile now that we’re into the play-off time,” he said.
“I don’t think a little 15-minute DVD that they look at it in their leisure time would be a real bother, so when we do meet up they will have a better idea of some of the players they might be facing.”
When French great Dominique Rocheteau paired Ireland with Bosnia in yesterday’s draw, O’Neill’s initial reaction could be summed up as respect for the opposition, relief at having avoided Ukraine and delight that his team would have the benefit of playing the second, potentially decisive, leg at home.
But that advantage would only count for something, he stressed, if his team deliver a performance in the first leg in Zenica. And with the away goal rule applying in the play-off, that would ideally mean something more than just keeping a clean sheet.
“This is now no longer a part of a group set-up, this is home and away and there is no point in sitting in and shutting up shop (in Zenica),” said O’Neill. “The away goal becomes vital in these kinds of matches.”
It was put to him that, while no team ever wants to come away with a defeat, in the context of the two-legged play-off, a 2-1 away loss in Bosnia might even be considered preferable to a scoreless draw.
“In many aspects it is,” he nodded. “The away goal has become really significant in matches.”
Naturally, that prompted O’Neill’s thoughts to turn to his strikers and, on that front, he had encouraging though by no means definitive, words to say about the likelihood of Shane Long’s availability.
“I spoke to Shane a couple of days ago and he’s optimistic,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s conflicting with what Southampton were saying - there were saying anything between two and four weeks. The thing with Shane is, I think he’s keeping the boot on for a few more days, but I think he, within himself, would be optimistic.”
On the other hand, he added: “It might be one of those where you go through two, three or four phases and it’s going great. Suddenly, all that healing seems to stop. It might be one of those…”
And there are still more reasons for Martin O’Neill to keep his fingers crossed over the coming days and weeks, not least - in the absence of the suspended John O’Shea - the well-being of Ciarán Clark.
“He could make these games,” said the manager. “It is a bit of a worry but he’s got a week or two yet. I’m concerned about all the areas, to tell you the truth. We’ve got one or two things to sort out. How Shay (Given) is and how things develop along that front. But I thought Darren (Randolph) coming in did fine against Germany and took it in his stride which was great.”
No media engagement with O’Neill can be considered complete at this stage, of course, without the mandatory question about whether he’s any closer to agreeing a contract extension with the FAI.
“My own view is that it would be great to carry on, particularly if John (Delaney) and the board want me to do so.” he told us yesterday.
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