Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 5°C Sunday 28 February 2021

Ireland fighting to keep qualification hopes alive as O'Neill's first campaign hangs in the balance

Failure to secure three points would effectively put the Boys in Green out of the running for a place at Euro 2016.

O'Neill and John O'Shea at the pre-match press conference in Dublin.
O'Neill and John O'Shea at the pre-match press conference in Dublin.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“WE NEED TO win the game,” declared John O’Shea. “If we want to qualify for France, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing tomorrow, we need to win the game.”

There are no two ways about it.

We may be only midway through the first campaign of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane’s tenure, but anything other than three points against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow and supporters of Ireland’s senior international team are looking at a 15-month wait until the next meaningful, competitive fixture when the 2018 World Cup qualifiers get underway.

“It’s naturally very important — for the nation, the players and for us as, in myself and the backroom staff,” accepted O’Neill. “We’d like to do well in it.

“In terms of international experience, I might not have a huge deal of that but I’ve been managing for a considerable time. It doesn’t take too long before you come around to real pressure games and this is a big game for us.”

Win and Ireland would leapfrog Saturday’s opponents onto 11 points ahead of their next two (very winnable) fixtures — away to Gibraltar in September and at home to Georgia three days later.

6 points from those would see them head into a clash with Germany in Dublin before their final group game away to Poland holding realistic ambitions of making the play-off place at least.

Defeat, on the other hand, effectively ends their challenge and would inevitably throw the current management team’s future into doubt.  

Few can argue that Ireland landed themselves in one of the tougher groups, alongside world champions Germany, Poland, Scotland, Georgia and Gibraltar, and the 1-0 loss in Glasgow aside, the results have reasonably respectable. But weren’t we told the introduction of a 24-team tournament would allow countries like Ireland to qualify on a more regular basis?  

You have to go back as far as 1996 to find the last time the Scots were present at a European Championship finals but, under Gordon Strachan, they have discovered a new belief and sense of purpose.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

There is a team spirit in the squad formed, not, as Strachan puts it, “through nights out, golf days or go karting”, but from “winning football matches”. The former Celtic boss implemented an alcohol ban when he took over in 2013.

Gordon Strachan with Stuart McCall and Mark McGhee Gordon Strachan with Stuart McCall and Mark McGhee at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

After their encouraging display in the loss to Germany and a 2-2 draw away to Poland, the Scots will have taken confidence in how they outmatched Ireland at Celtic Park in November.

That night, Ireland missed midfield pairing James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, while Wes Hoolahan wasn’t available as Scotland’s tenacious captain Scott Brown and the excellent Charlie Mulgrew won the battle in the middle of the park.

Their likely return to the starting line-up will be a welcome sight while Ireland’s other Scottish-born player could be absent after missing the final training session on Friday. Brown isn’t buying it, however, and says he fully expects McGeady to play.

Like McGeady, a late decision will also be made on the emotional fitness of Robbie Keane, who is mourning the tragic death of his two cousins.

Strachan has predicted “an occasion” at Lansdowne Road, with the Tartan Army expected to bring around 10,000 fans over for the game. Their strong presence is already noticeable around the capital this evening and it’s pleasing to see some have chosen to take in a spot of domestic football at Dalymount and Richmond Park.

The onus will be on Ireland to take the game to their opponents and O’Neill called on his players to be “less tentative”, before borrowing a phrase from Giovanni Trapattoni’s book.

“We are at home this time and we feel like we are stronger so we want to make use of that,” he said. “I’m hoping for the little details that we can deal with. Little things – being able to defend set-pieces properly, having a little bit of craft in the team…

“All those things combined make up every single football match. We feel like we are capable of winning the game and I’ve got good confidence in the team. Genuinely.”

Opinion: RTÉ should apologise for their treatment of John Giles

McGeady a major doubt for Ireland’s make-or-break Euro 2016 qualifier

About the author:

Ben Blake

Read next: