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Wary O'Neill is bracing himself for tough road to Russia

EURO 2016

By Daniel McDonnell

Is the future bright for the Republic of Ireland? Martin O'Neill pauses to consider the question. He doesn't rush into the easy answer, the obvious soundbite that everything is going to be alright.

Much as he was thrilled by the contribution of the Republic of Ireland's young players in their Euro 2016 adventure, he had earlier shied away from treating his final French press conference as the start of the next cycle.

"This morning, it feels like an ending," he said. "Honestly it does, it's over. I thought that if we could beat France, we would have a week's rest..."

The tone made it clear that he was primarily thinking about what could have been - not what will be come the autumn.

With the official signing of his contract expected to be a formality, his initial thought when he did consider the future was to stress that another long, hard road lies ahead before the Irish can even think about getting back to the stage they left on Sunday.

So, onto that possibility of a bright future then.

"We're always quick to make big assumptions based on a certain game," O'Neill cautioned.

"We've done very well, I'm delighted with the team and the way they've performed. Do I think we should go into the World Cup with decent confidence? Yes. Do I think some of the players have performed incredibly well, even beyond what they maybe felt themselves? Yes, absolutely.

"We're back at it in a couple of months' time and it's back to a long, gruelling campaign to try and qualify. There'll be points taken off each other again. And just when you think you've cracked it, you'll get stung. And just when you feel it's the other way, you'll roll back again.

"It's totally different to tournament football. For us to enjoy this we had to go through 12 games of really tough work."

A look at the travel plan for the rest of 2016 drives that point home. The Republic have away games in Serbia (September), Moldova (October) and Austria (November) that will shape the course for O'Neill's second term.

The scope for preparation is limited: an August 31 friendly with Oman in Dublin is next up. There have been calls for that match to be used as a tribute to Robbie Keane, John O'Shea and Shay Given if they decide to quit the international game.

That picture should clear itself up in the coming weeks. Wes Hoolahan had also spoken about considering his future, while O'Neill also introduced Glenn Whelan into questions about the subject, although he was trying to make a point about how senior players handled coping with losing their place or adopting fringe roles.

He will speak to any of the thirty-somethings if they want clarity on their position before making any call.

"I think the players will be 75% sure (in their own minds) as to what they want to do," stressed the 64-year-old.

"If they say, 'listen here, I need you to either push it over the line' or 'where do you see me fitting in?' then I would let them know as honestly as I possibly can about where they stand.

"What I have noticed here is the really good influence of John O'Shea. Glenn Whelan is like me, he's a moany git, but he's really good and strong with the team. Robbie is playing in America and I don't know what might be in his mind.

"These things happen. They look at the side and the younger players coming through and sometimes the older players don't want to feel like a liability around the place or get picked because of reputation."

The guard changes naturally, but a tournament summer can accelerate that process. Robbie Brady started the competition as a left-back and Jeff Hendrick was deemed at risk for the opening match because of inadequate preparation. They will go to Belgrade as central figures with a new reputation to live up to.

"When I first saw Jeff two years ago, when he got the ball he spent most of his time playing it back," said the manager.

"And I just said to him, 'you've got to get turned and get at people, you're strong. Your first thought should be thinking getting on a half-turn and looking forward and then driving forward', which he did and did brilliantly.

"The younger players have kind of taken a bit of ownership and thought, 'it's our time, our time' and they stepped up and performed brilliantly."

Clearly, he takes pride from their progression. O'Neill's reputation was on the line here too. He boarded the plane almost three weeks ago knowing that a disastrous effort could damage his standing.

Making a raft of changes midway through the competition put his neck on the chopping block. The brave calls largely paid off, but he was reluctant to agree with a query which posed the question of whether he has emerged from the experience as a better manager. He never lost faith in his own ability, even if other people did.

"Am I a better manager?" he replied. "No, I think I said to you before, I'm reasonably good at my job.

"I don't think that the players could have given any more than they did, let me put it that way.

"We were beaten by a very fine Belgian side. We competed with and beat what you would still consider a strong Italian side, players who are playing major football every single week.

"France introduced a player (Kingsley Coman) who plays for Bayern Munich. There's a player called (Anthony) Martial, who is a quality player, really great player, who only cost about £50m, and he wasn't in their team. That's what you're up against. So I think we have come out of it really well.

"Have I enjoyed the tournament? Yes. Am I better than I was a few years ago? I don't know."

It does feel as if this Republic of Ireland team are in a healthier state than they were at the end of the last World Cup journey, but O'Neill spoke like a man who knows that fine margins will again determine the fate of the planned road to Russia.

New options are required for a player pool that will need more than spirit to carry them all the way.

Belfast Telegraph