O'Neill praises McClean and players' performance as second place and playoff secured

Tue, Oct 10 2017

The Republic of Ireland team line up during the Irish National Anthem Credit: Macdara Ferris

From Macdara Ferris in Cardiff City Stadium


Just like he had done away from home in Vienna, Chisinau and now Cardiff, James McClean was on the scoresheet to help drive a determined Republic of Ireland side to victory.


Speaking to the media after the 1-0 win against Wales that propelled Ireland into the play-offs, the Ireland manager heaped praise on goalscoring hero James McClean, along with his teammates in what Martin O’Neill called a “fantastic, absolutely fantastic” performance.


O’Neill was handed a new contract ahead of this month’s double header and that decision looked justified by the results against Moldova and Wales – even if the Boys in Green rode their luck at times, particularly in the first half against the Welsh.


“We had to withstand a lot of pressure, which you would expect. Wales put us under that pressure, as befits a side that had done so brilliantly in the Euros. James scores a great goal for us and then we have to withstand more pressure.”


In Vienna, McClean’s winner came from Irish pressing and quick movement of the ball along with a drilled right footed finish and it was the similar in Cardiff just before the hour mark. Jeff Hendrick forced an error from Welsh captain Ashley Williams when he picked up a short throw out from Wayne Hennessy.


“Jeff was brilliant chasing the ball down, maneuvered it magnificently and it was terrific. The goal changed the dynamics of the game. We now had something to hold onto.


“James has just been magnificent for us. He might not have the same total ability as Gareth Bale, but he's been great for us. He's been a talisman.”


Having got to ten points after the win against Austria four games into Group D, Ireland collected just three more points in the following four matches. O’Neill’s team showed great resilience to close out the campaign with back-to-back wins to finish second in the table – just two points behind group winners Serbia.


“I never doubted the character of the players,” said O’Neill. “They have shown great courage. Trying to qualify for the World Cup is a monumental task. I knew we would fight back (in the group).


“It was really great tonight. To come and win in Wales was fantastic and the players will not give up — that’s the point. We might lack a few things but courage is not one of them.”


Attention now turns to the playoff draw which will take place next week. Ireland’s potential playoff opponents include Italy, Croatia, Denmark and Switzerland or Portugal.


O’Neill admitted maybe tongue in cheek that he fears who they might draw but as he went on to allude to that hasn’t stopped his team digging out results during his tenure as Ireland manager in those big games when a win is required.


“Do I fear teams in it? Absolutely, every one of them but I’ve always feared teams, that is the best way to be, and then we go out and beat them!”


O’Neill confirmed that Jon Walters will miss out on the playoff but he wasn’t quite ruling out the return of his captain Seamus Coleman. “Seamus is doing really well. I couldn’t call it. I’d have to speak to Everton. He hasn’t played in sometime and the playoffs are around the corner.”


For Seamus’ namesake Chris Coleman it was a difficult night. Coleman was gracious in defeat afterwards saying he hoped Ireland would qualify now. He didn’t complain about losing Joe Allen to concussion late in the first half which altered the momentum of the game.


Coleman’s contract is up and he may yet stay on to lead his charges into the Euro 2020 qualification but he wasn’t being drawn on his future after the final whistle.


“I thanked the players,” said Coleman about the words said in the dressingroom after the end of their ten match unbeaten home run. “I'm super proud of them. It's been a privilege to work with them. I told them 'stick their chest out and be proud'.”


For full match report, see here.