O’Neill: I was worried about a EURO hangover
Martin O’Neill feared the offshoot of Republic of Ireland’s successful UEFA EURO campaign and has admitted that two fewer points in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying “would have done nicely”.
The Irish upset Italy to reach the Round of 16 at UEFA EURO 2016, where they took the lead against tournament hosts and favourites France before an Antoine Griezmann double dumped them out. When Group D in European qualifying for Russia 2018 kicked off, Wales were the favourites, closely followed by Austria and Serbia. Despite playing three of their first four games away, however, Ireland sit two points clear of Serbia and four above third-placed Wales.
"Without question I'd have settled for ten points,” O’Neill told the Irish Independent. “In fact, eight would have done nicely. I never plan for a draw in a game, but you would have taken draws in Belgrade and Vienna – we got more.
“When I saw the fixtures, with three games away, just as it was in the EUROs, I said to myself, 'Don't let us be out of this before we're even in it'. I was a bit worried about a hangover from the EUROs, but the draw in Serbia was great and for us to go and the win in Austria gave us some extra points. That gives us a chance, that's all."
We have to be at it the whole way, for every minute of every game. We can't take 15 minutes out anywhere. We're not good enough to do that.
Success nevertheless creates expectations, which Ireland must now deal with when Wales hit Dublin in March. "If I focus on that and that only, that's fine for me,” said the 64-year-old, who played Gaelic football before joining Nottingham Forest, who whom he won back-to-back European Cups as a midfielder.
“The players must focus on what they are capable of, or not capable of doing. The players know that we have to be at it the whole way, for every minute of every game. We can't take 15 minutes out anywhere. We're not good enough to do that.
"The classic one was the first half against Georgia in October, where we didn't take them for granted but we were outplayed. It was as simple as that. Coming in at half-time, the players knew we'd not played well in the first half and now we had 45 minutes to do something about it. It wasn't great, but we did enough to go and win a game we might otherwise have lost.
"I think, as the manager, I'm entitled to say something to the lads. It didn't take much for the lads to realise we had not played well in that match and were in danger of losing the game."
Republic of Ireland didn’t qualify for the World Cup until 1990, when they drew with the Netherlands to reach the knockout phase, eliminated Romania on penalties, and lost 1-0 to Italy in the quarter-finals. The third and last World Cup they played at was Korea/Japan 2002.