Belfast Telegraph

European Championships Play-off: Martin O'Neill: Deal me in for fresh battles with Republic of Ireland

By Damian Spellman

Martin O'Neill has admitted he would be open to extending his contract as Republic of Ireland manager.

The 63-year-old is understood to have been offered an extension to the two-year deal he signed in November 2013 regardless of whether he steers the nation to the Euro 2016 finals via a play-off double-header against Bosnia-Herzegovina over the next few days.

O'Neill confirmed the Football Association of Ireland wanted him to stay, and that he was happy to talk to chief executive John Delaney about it.

He said: "Absolutely, I am open to it. We had a conversation after Scotland and John was very supportive, felt as if this is the way we want to go forward, and that was very pleasing to hear.

"We haven't really talked about it since, but I haven't been pressing because there are actually very important things to deal with.

"If we could qualify, that would be great and we would go on to France - I would be delighted to do that if that's the case. But if we didn't qualify, we John and myself will sit down and see where we go. I think John and the board would want it to continue and I have enjoyed it immensely. Sometime in the new year - probably the earlier, the better, maybe get Christmas out of the way - John and I would sit and have a discussion about it."

Skipper Robbie Keane insisted it would be "silly" for O'Neill's services not to be retained, with he and assistant Roy Keane having overseen a campaign which could yet pay tangible dividends for the efforts over the last two years.

The LA Galaxy striker said: "From the very, very start of the campaign, certainly as a group we have grown into it a lot more. It would be silly if the manager didn't get a new contract - he has obviously done a great job.

"But we certainly want to finish this campaign off now with qualification for France, because we started the campaign off having that goal in our minds and it would certainly be disappointing if we didn't do it."

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The Republic face Bosnia-Herzegovina in Zenica tomorrow night (7.45pm) and then again in Dublin three days later. Having rekindled their qualification hopes with a shock victory over world champions Germany last month, defeat in Poland saw an automatic berth snatched from their grasp.

Former Northern Ireland skipper O'Neill believes progress has been made, but knows there is still work to be done with senior men Shay Given, John O'Shea and front man Keane approaching the end of their international careers.

He said: "There is a set of players here well into their thirties who need replacing - they will not mind me saying that - but we want to replace them with really top-quality younger players coming through who can take their place at international level almost immediately. That's important.

"In terms of progress, if we qualify, regardless of what people would say, that very obviously would be progression. But we will see."

Keane is available for what might could yet prove to be his final two matches as a Republic of Ireland player, and he admits a coaching role with his country is something he might like to explore once his playing career has drawn to a close. He said: "Listen, I'd love to, of course. Certainly if something came up in the future to be involved somewhere, assistant manager or manager maybe longer down the road, it's certainly something that I'd be very, very interested in. But certainly not at the moment."

Meanwhile, Shane Long is out of the first leg however, the 28-year-old Southampton striker has not been ruled out of the return in Dublin next Monday. O'Neill was keeping his fingers crossed as he met the media yesterday afternoon that Long, who scored the only goal in last month's famous 1-0 qualifying victory over world champions Germany, would be fit for the game in Zenica after damaging his foot in Poland three days later.

However, despite making progress, the frontman will not be available for the game at the Bilino Polje Stadium. A Football Association of Ireland statement said: "Shane Long will not be involved in Friday's first leg as he will remain at Southampton for further treatment on his ankle injury, but he has not been ruled out of next Monday's second leg at the Aviva Stadium."

Hull midfielder David Meyler is another injury doubt for the first leg while Reading defender Paul McShane has been ruled out by injury.

There was better news for Brentford midfielder Alan Judge, who was due to meet up with the squad in Dublin last night after recovering from a hamstring problem, and he will be joined by Charlton keeper Stephen Henderson following Keiren Westwood's withdrawal.

The statement added: "Henderson has been drafted into the squad as a replacement for Keiren Westwood who has returned to Sheffield Wednesday after a pre-existing ankle injury flared up today in training at the FAI National Training Centre."

It has proved a difficult few days for the Republic's goalkeepers with Shay Given sidelined by knee surgery and Rob Elliot, having been ruled out of the first leg with an ongoing thigh problem.

O'Neill said: "Rob himself, while feeling that he is not great, would obviously want to do something, but he doesn't feel as if he's 100 per cent fit, or possibly not even 80 per cent fit, so from that viewpoint, even though he did splendidly in the game, I think we are served well enough."

Belfast Telegraph