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Martin O'Neill enthusiastic for 2019 despite dismal end to dreadful year

Ireland rounded off their series of fixtures for 2018 by failing to score for the fourth game in a row.

Paul Dollery reports from Aarhus, Denmark

WHILE ADMITTING THAT the problems in front of goal need to be addressed, Martin O’Neill did his utmost to identify positives from the park-the-bus performance that earned the Republic of Ireland a draw against Denmark on Monday night.

O’Neill’s side concluded their Uefa Nations League campaign with a goalless stalemate at Ceres Park in Aarhus, where the main positive from an Irish perspective was the senior international debut of 18-year-old Southampton striker Michael Obafemi.

Martin O’Neill Martin O'Neill on the touchline at Ceres Park in Aarhus. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland did keep a clean sheet for the third time in four outings. However, their lack of attacking ambition was manifested in a failure to register a single shot on target. Ireland have now gone 397 minutes without scoring a goal.

Denmark, who reached the knockout stages at the 2018 World Cup, had already secured top spot in Nations League Group B4 thanks to Friday’s 2-1 win over Wales. Even a victory in Aarhus wouldn’t have been enough to lift Ireland off the foot of the table.

“We were playing away from home against Denmark, who are obviously full of confidence at the moment from their exploits at the World Cup and qualification in this little league,” said O’Neill.

“We were very, very strong defensively and we’ll try to be a little bit more creative going forward. But I thought we were strong tonight and the chances that Denmark had probably came of our own doing.”

He added: “Of course, it’s only a start. Absolutely, exactly that. Since the Welsh game, we’ve had to tighten up defensively. I think we’ve been able to do that and now we have to try to fix it at the other end.”

Going back to last November’s World Cup play-off against the Danes, Ireland have now won just once in their last 11 games. For 2018, most of the figures make for unpleasant reading: nine games played, one victory, four goals scored.

When assessing Ireland’s year, O’Neill feels the calibre of the opposition should be taken into account. As well as the Nations League double headers against Denmark and Wales, his side played friendlies against Turkey, France, USA, Poland and Northern Ireland. They could have opted for challenges that weren’t as daunting, he insisted.

Robbie Brady with Mathias Jorgensen Mathias Jørgensen of Denmark pursuing Ireland's Robbie Brady. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“If I wanted to go and play some friendly matches that I think that we could win… I’m not into that. If other people want to go and build up their stats in such a manner… that’s never been my doing and we’ve chosen some really difficult friendly matches.

“We’ve played five of those and some really difficult games, and we’ve played a lot of young players at the same time. That’s the case. Next year is the year when it comes to the big stuff. We’ll be playing big, big matches and the players have shown in the past couple of years that they’ve been up for that.”

Looking ahead of the start of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in March, the Ireland boss pointed to the emergence of new players as an example of progress made. O’Neill capped 12 debutants in 2018, although one of those is the undecided Declan Rice. 

“We’ve got some big players still around. We’ve lost one or two players but we’ve blooded quite a number of youngsters in the hope eventually that they can come through,” said O’Neill.

“But it’s asking an awful lot of young players, particularly players who are not maybe playing regularly in their sides, to come through at international level. But in three or four months, let us see what that might bring.”

Ireland will discover who they’ll be accompanied by in their Euro 2020 qualifying group when the draw is made in Dublin next month. The bid to reach a third consecutive European Championship will then begin in March. 

When asked if he’s enthusiastic for what lies ahead, O’Neill said: “Enthusiasm, as Sir Alex Ferguson once said to a group of us, is everything. You have to have enthusiasm and I have had it in abundance all my career, both as a player and as a manager.

“I don’t think I could have had the sort of success that I’ve had if I didn’t have that enthusiasm — and it has never waned.” 

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Paul Dollery

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