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'A disaster if we don't get six points? I better not get out of bed in the morning'

Ireland boss Martin O’Neill rejected suggestions that their upcoming World Cup qualifiers are must-win encounters.

Martin O'Neill pictured at today's press conference.
Martin O'Neill pictured at today's press conference.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IRELAND MANAGER MARTIN O’Neill has attempted to play down high expectations ahead of his side’s upcoming crucial World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Serbia.

Two wins from the fixtures in question would put Ireland in a strong position to qualify automatically for the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer.

However, O’Neill insists his side will not be taking anything for granted ahead of their trip to Tbilisi for the first of two big games this Saturday.

When it was asked at today’s press conference whether failure to take six points from these games would constitute a “disaster,” O’Neill dismissed the suggestion.

Wow! A disaster if we don’t get six points? I better not get out of bed in the morning if that’s the case,” he joked.

“I would never call it a disaster. You’re just talking about winning in Georgia and beating Serbia? Just yeah, easy. I don’t know why we bother turning up, just give us the points.

I think the games are really difficult. I don’t think you’re talking about any disaster. I think that we have fought hard to get the points on the board that we have done, we’re on the same number of points as Serbia, we’re a couple of points clear of Austria and Wales at the moment and we just treat each game on its merit, that’s the best thing to do.

“To start talking about anything other than six points being a disaster, I think that would be a tough ask. It means you have still got another two games and as we know from the (2016) Euros qualification, anything can happen.

I just don’t think it would be a disaster myself. We are going to try to win the games if we can. They will not be easy, either of the two of them won’t be.”

With Georgia second from bottom of Group D on three points, most people are expecting Ireland to prevail at the weekend, but O’Neill pointed to his side’s most recent closely fought fixtures against their rivals as evidence that it will likely be trickier than some people anticipate.

My own view is I think they are under-rated,” he added.  “I know that from my experience as well when I was manager of Celtic, Dundee and a couple of other teams had a number of Georgian players who were very skillful.

“I am surprised that they don’t seem to get the results. They cause teams problems — they caused us problems at the Aviva, they caused Wales problems, they caused Serbia a lot of problems, scored first, could have scored a second goal before Serbia scored. That might have been a different outcome.”

Seamus Coleman celebrates scoring a goal Seamus Coleman scored the only goal the last time Ireland met Georgia. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

To complicate matters, there is concern over the fitness of a key player in Jon Walters ahead of the games, but O’Neill is hopeful the Burnley attacker will be available this weekend.

Jon is always upbeat, which is great, so I’ll leave him for a day or two to see how he is and if he thinks he can play in the first game (he’ll have a strong chance of selection).

“I was asked a question with the written press, ‘Do you think that you might change a few things around (in anticipation of the Serbia game)?’ – I don’t think you can afford to do that because somebody that you might leave out for, let’s say, you’re worried he might pick up a yellow card, then he gets ill the day of the second game and then you think why did you not do it?

From that viewpoint, the first game is the most important match for us. It’s really important for us to try to come away with something from the game and prepare ourselves for Serbia after that and only after that.”

On Walters, the 65-year-old coach added: “Jon has kept himself in great physical condition during his career.

“James McClean didn’t play the game (at the weekend) — or only played for the last 15 or 20 minutes of the match. It doesn’t really bother me. Shane Long has not had much time in terms of playing at Southampton), but he’s a fit lad.

Obviously, match fitness is still very important. Considering you are playing two games in a matter of three days, all of that fitness you have or haven’t got comes into play.

“But overall, we are where we are and if Jon doesn’t train for a day or two, but still declares himself fit, I will be happy, because it’s happened in the past for us where he hasn’t trained at times and he’s come in and been terrific for us.”

With Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy and Eunan O’Kane all absent from today’s 25-man squad, O’Neill remains confident others can come in and do a good job.

One candidate to replace those absentees is Conor Hourihane, who has yet to play competitive match for Ireland. Nevertheless, the 26-year-old has caught the eye with a couple of nice goals for Aston Villa already this season.

And while stressing that there is still plenty of room for improvement, O’Neill has been impressed of late by what he’s seen from the Cork native, who appears to finally be showing the type of form that earned him a move to Villa Park from Barnsley last January, having struggled to adapt to Steve Bruce’s side initially.

Funnily enough, I have seen Aston Villa a lot this season, believe it or not. I have seen them twice live and once on television.

“I watched them against Reading and he played – unfortunately, I left just about the moment he was scoring the goal to make it 2-1. He tells me it was a great goal, and then he scored three, so his confidence is up.

At least he’s getting a few shots off, which I think I said to him last year: ‘If you want to make yourself a midfielder of note and you have a decent shot, then you should be (a) getting a few shots on target and a few goals, and any player who is scoring double figures from midfield, particularly in the Championship will be worth a lot’.

“(Himself and Glenn Whelan) playing together (at club level), that’s fine, that’s good. At least they know each other’s game and that’s encouraging.

“I also saw them play, albeit on television, on Friday evening against Bristol City, so I have seen enough to know (that they can) play together.

Hopefully, Conor won’t mind me saying this, and perhaps maybe I was expecting a lot. I know he played in one of our friendly games and I wanted him to dominate a little bit more.

“It’s asking a lot for somebody who is actually making their debut. He played out in America as well, so I just wanted him to be more dominant in the game, to grab matches by the scruff of the neck and have the ability, have the confidence to go and do that.

If one of your roles is to get forward, he must try to get a few strikes on goal. If you have a good shot, you might as well go for it and I think that’s what he’s doing.

“He was telling me earlier that he’s been given licence by (Steve Bruce) to get forward, and that’s always encouraging.”

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Paul Fennessy

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