Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill in jovial mood despite stretched squad for Wales clash
Uefa Nations League Group B4: Wales v Republic of Ireland (tonight, Cardiff City, 7.45pm)
THERE was decidedly less tension in the room from the last time the Republic of Ireland were in Cardiff City Stadium 11 months ago.
Manager Martin O’Neill cracked a “poor joke” about everything being “absolutely fine” between Jon Walters and Roy Keane “until tomorrow night” – a jocular reference to the training ground spat back in June that also involved Harry Arter who is now taking a break from international football.
Yesterday’s pre-match press conference for the start of Uefa’s Nations League Cup - a long and winding 'B' road to Euro 2020 which effectively replaces the end-of-campaign play-offs – was a world away from the tension of last October’s make-or-break World Cup Qualifier in the same stadium, which the Irish won through a memorable second-half strike from James McClean.
The Welsh crashed out while the Republic suffered a humiliating play-off defeat to Denmark the following month.
Ryan Giggs has since replaced the popular Chris Coleman as Wales manager while Ireland’s double act of O’Neill and Roy Keane remains very much intact.
Keane and Arter had a training ground bust-up prior to the June friendly with the United States with the on-loan Cardiff City player stepping away from the panel as a result.
Walters, Ireland’s only recognisable centre forward in a ravaged squad, was also involved in the spat but turned up for international duty as normal.
“I think Jon and Roy are absolutely fine,” said O’Neill, wearing a mischievous smile.
“No problem whatsoever - probably until tomorrow… A poor joke.”
Earlier in the week, O’Neill offered a stout defence of his fiery assistant manager. And last night in Cardiff, the Kilrea man was asked again.
“Well, I suppose I didn’t want it to be support for him [Keane],” he said.
“I think he’s well capable of supporting himself in that sense. But I think he’s been excellent since he’s came in.
“I think the captain [Seamus Coleman] sitting beside me would agree with that. He’s been very positive, very, very strong. You know what you’re going to get when you’ve Roy alongside you. You know he has that capacity… and sometimes that’s why I like him.”
Coleman was then asked did he ever have a fall-out with O’Neill’s assistant.
“I wouldn’t say a fallen out,” Coleman replied.
“I would say Roy’s very demanding. He was a top player and he expects the best and, as players, we understand that.
“If you make a mistake in training, he’ll tell you. He’s no different to the manager, and as professional footballers that’s what you have to deal with. As players we’re all together and we want to be successful.”
Unsurprisingly, Declan Rice’s name cropped up again. The 19-year-old has played three friendly games for the Republic but is reconsidering his options with his native England on his trail.
While Rice’s hesitancy hasn’t gone down well with Irish supporters and some high-profile ex-Irish internationals, Coleman was more sympathetic to the youngster’s predicament.
“In an ideal world, we’d have all the players here playing for us,” said the Donegal man.
“On Declan’s situation, and some people back home mightn’t understand, he’s a 19-year-old boy.
“He was born in England but there is no reason why he can’t be a proud Irishman. After the Turkey [friendly] game [in March] and getting man-of-the-match I seen him embracing his father in the tunnel.
“That’s not for show, that’s genuine. He was genuinely proud to play in the games that he did. In an ideal world, we’ll get him back. It’s not as straightforward.
“The lad was born in England. There is no reason why he can’t feel English and be very proud to play for Ireland, which I know he is. Fingers crossed we’ll welcome Declan back.”
O’Neill has a few voids to fill from the side that conquered the Welsh last year.
Robbie Brady, James McClean, Shane Long and Arter are all missing while John O’Shea Daryl Murphy and Wes Hoolahan have retired from international football.
That said, Ireland’s starting line-up against the Welsh should still have a fairly familiar look about it with Darren Randolph, Coleman, Ciaran Clark, Shane Duffy, Stephen Ward, Jeff Hendrick, David Meyler and Walters expected to be involved. Conor Hourihane and Callum O’Dowda are also close to starting.
O'Neill added: "If we’re not beaten in the game I think, in the circumstances, it would be a decent enough result for us if that is the case.
“But as I’ve said dozens and dozens of times, anybody that tries to plan for something like that is going to come a cropper. We’re going to try and see out the big moments at one end of the pitch and we’re going to try and make it happen at the other end.”