Martin O’Neill’s stewardship of Ireland kicks into high gear over the next few days, beginning with the unveiling in Limerick this morning of his squad for the friendly game against Serbia at the Aviva Stadium on March 5.
Then, on Sunday, attention will switch to France, where O’Neill will be on hand to learn Ireland’s fate when the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifiers takes place in Nice.
The significance of today’s announcement in Limerick is that it will be the first time O’Neill, with input from his assistant Roy Keane, is entirely in charge of squad selection, having previously agreed to work with players picked by Noel King — the interim manager after the departure of Giovanni Trapattoni — for his inaugural games in charge at home to Lativa and away to Poland last November.
Since their appointment, O’Neill and Keane have been clocking up road miles to run the rule over players, as Aiden McGeady discovered first hand when he joined Everton.
“Actually, the day I signed I was sitting next to Roy in the box (at Goodison),” he revealed yesterday. “He was obviously watching James (McCarthy) and Seamus (Coleman).”
McGeady, who knows O’Neill well from their time together at Parkhead, has no doubts about the single biggest attribute the manager brings to the job of managing Ireland.
“I think the main one is the motivation he brings to a team and the response he gets out of players,” he said. “I always found that at Celtic — the way he speaks to players and the way he energises them before games. That was a big factor in Celtic having so much success. Obviously he’s played the game at a top level and been a manager for a number of years too. He knows the game inside out.
“I think the time had come for a change, for the team to have a change in direction. Obviously we were very successful under Trapattoni but I think everyone is happy with the new start. We played quite well under the new management in the first couple of games and hopefully we can carry that on into the qualifying campaign.
“I think under the old management after the first couple of years there was a lot of negative publicity. Even when we did do well or we did win a game, people were complaining because it was boring football to watch. In the end, they might have had a point but we did also qualify for the Euros and came close to qualifying for the World Cup. I think he left the team in a better state than he found it.”
Looking ahead to Sunday’s draw, the winger not surprisingly hopes Ireland can avoid the team whose thumping victory in Dublin signalled the beginning of the end for the Italian.
“Germany, I don’t think we’d want to get them again,” McGeady said. “Portugal, possibly. The top four or five teams in Europe you’d like to avoid but there’s a good chance you’ll get one or two of them. But the draw could be favourable too, like it was for us when we qualified for the Euros with the play-off against Estonia. We got the best draw that time.
“England? I think we’d relish it, like the game at Wembley. England probably weren’t at their best but we played quite well and ended up getting a credible result. I think a lot of people expected us to lose by some margin but one-all away was a decent result.”
Meanwhile, before he even gets to name his squad today — and reveals whether or not there will be recalls this time for the likes of Stephen Ireland and Shay Given — O’Neill has already lost the Hull City pair of Robbie Brady and Paul McShane.
Brady, who underwent a hernia operation last October, suffered a setback at the weekend when he pulled up in training with a groin injury which ruled him out of Monday’s 1-1 draw with Brighton in the FA Cup.
Defender McShane, meanwhile, will miss the rest of the season following ankle surgery, while Everton’s Darron Gibson is another long-term absentee as he continues his recovery from a knee ligament injury.
But, despite initial fears he would miss the whole season, his club are now hopeful that the midfielder could be back playing in April.
Irish skipper Robbie Keane, who had surgery on his Achilles before Christmas, scored in a friendly last night for LA Galaxy , whose league season is due to kick of just three days after the game against Serbia in Dublin.
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