It was a little like the first day at new school yesterday for the Ireland players, as they made their debut at the National Training Centre by FAI headquarters in Abbotstown.
With John Delaney looking on like a doting parent and watched also by association staff and the media, the players were put through their paces for the first time on the immaculate Pitch 1 — and, with that, another small but significant piece of Irish football history was made.
That much construction work is still ongoing at the National Sports Campus should be of little concern to the players since they are bussed directly from their new hotel base in Castleknock straight through to pitchside and back again.
Nevertheless, footballers being creatures of habit who are usually firmly wedded to routine, especially in match week, it was not surprising to learn that Martin O’Neill had harboured some reservations about the leaving of Malahide, where the Gannon Park training base and nearby Portmarnock Golf Hotel had become such a familiar and popular home for the Irish squad over the years.
“I think initially I might have had a concern,” the manager admitted yesterday. “I have always said I really do enjoy the Portmarnock Hotel. They looked after us very well. Malahide, where the groundstaff have looked after us really well, was great for us. Are you asking me if I was sad to leave that? Absolutely. But this is not just about me. This is about the future.
“Honestly, the pitch is absolutely splendid. It couldn’t be better. It really is good. I think myself that, in time, the whole environment will be based around the headquarters here. It was the vision for the FAI and well done them for pressing on with it.”
Of rather more immediate concern for O’Neill, of course, is the upcoming European Championship double-header against Gibraltar in Faro on Friday and Georgia in Dublin on Monday. By the time Ireland take the pitch in Faro, they will know if Georgia have done them a turn by tripping up Scotland in Tbilisi, but O’Neill says he can’t allow himself to bank on any favours elsewhere in the group.
“We’re in a position where, naturally, if we can win all four (remaining) games then we qualify automatically,” he said.
“It would be nice if something materialised from that (the game in Tbilisi) but I don’t think I can worry myself into oblivion about it. If it happens, it happens. I think the Scottish games are still difficult but it’s up to us to win our two matches. We’ve got to win our games and focus on that. If we can, then you might see a difference in the table.”
There was almost a full roll call for yesterday’s first day of training at Abbotstown with only Kevin Doyle and Jon Walters missing from a squad of 28 which will be reduced by five for the game on Friday.
While Doyle was due to arrive in later in the day from Denver, Walters was being given additional time off in England to sort out a possible move from Stoke — with Norwich and, reportedly, West Brom showing interest in the player — before the close of the transfer window this evening. And the same flexibility, said O’Neill, will be afforded any other squad member who might be involved in a late move. “If they have to go, they have to go,” he said.
While O’Neill dismissed the idea that Seamus Coleman might leave Goodison Park — “I don’t think Everton would want Seamus to be heading anywhere” — he confirmed he’d heard talk that the full-back’s club mate Aiden McGeady could go out on loan. “But at this moment I don’t know any more,” he added.
Meanwhile, the manager was called upon to address Damien Delaney’s recent statement in which he said that “contrary to recent comments” by O’Neill, he had “never asked for a regular starting position.” He also implied a difference of opinion between himself and the Ireland boss in terms of footballing philosophy.
Initially reluctant to discuss the matter, under repeated questioning O’Neill did finally proffer this clarification of his discussions with Delaney: “He said that he was of an age where he did not want to travel around with the team and really not be involved with the side. I said, ‘I cannot guarantee you that’. It is relatively straightforward. I didn’t fall out with him. He volunteered the information that he thought I was going down another route. Not at all. He asked me do I want to play a different way, because I think he had played a couple of long balls or something like that. I said, ‘not at all’.
“I have had some of the strongest centre halves in my time playing at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa. Some of them were very comfortable on the ball like Mattie Elliott and some, like Bobo Balde, were not. You know, being able to defend first in games is very, very important. That is what I am looking for. So I do not see how Damien could pick up anything else and think I was looking for someone who could caress it all the time. Because that is not the case.”
And despite Delaney effectively announcing his international retirement in the same statement — even though he continues to shine for Crystal Palace in the Premier League — O’Neill suggested his door would remain open should the Corkman reconsider.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I am not in a position to dismiss anything if someone ends up changing their mind.”
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