O'Neill prepared to remain patient as Walters aims to win fitness race
Martin O'Neill will give talisman Jonathan Walters every chance to prove his fitness ahead of the Republic of Ireland's crucial World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Serbia.
The 33-year-old striker missed Burnley's 1-1 Premier League draw at Tottenham on Sunday with an ankle problem and was unable to train fully after meeting up with the Republic squad in Dublin yesterday.
However, given his importance to his country with Robbie Keane now retired from international football and the vastly experienced John O'Shea playing a peripheral role in recent months, O'Neill is desperate to have one of his key men fighting fit for Saturday's tough trip to Tbilisi and the clash with the Serbs which follows it.
He said: "He's been really important for us. During the Euros - I think I said this on a number of occasions - in the qualification group, he became the talisman.
"His whole presence is very, very important to us in every aspect. It's great to have him around the place. He's got a great attitude and he enjoys playing as well, and we enjoy having him around because he's so influential to us.
"I'm pleased with Jon as a person for a start, and when he plays, you talk about the genuine 100 per center. He's there for you, and that's been a hallmark of his career."
It was Walters' double in the play-off second leg against Bosnia-Herzegovina which secured the Republic's place at the Euro 2016 finals, and his equaliser against Austria in June ensured that O'Neill's men remain firmly in the hunt for World Cup qualification from Group D.
He is expected to train today, but if he does not, Ulsterman O'Neill insists he will not be unduly concerned.
He said: "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 absolutely terrific for us."
O'Neill faces a series of decisions in midfield, where Everton's James McCarthy has been ruled out of both games and Burnley's Jeff Hendrick will certainly not figure against Georgia, although there remains an outside chance that he could return to face group leaders Serbia.
O'Neill said: "Jeff hasn't ruled himself out for the second game. He had an injection on Friday, he felt much better on Sunday - I was speaking to him yesterday - and while the Saturday game might come too early for him, if he is feeling half-decent during the week he might put himself forward.
"We'll see how that goes. That might be optimistic on my part, it might be optimistic on Jeff's part, but he certainly hasn't ruled himself out completely for next week."
The absence of both McCarthy and Hendrick could prompt O'Neill to take advantage of Robbie Brady's versatility once again with the Burnley winger having played at left-back and in a series of more advanced roles for his country.
O'Neill said: "It's just generally good to see him playing well again.
"He's recovered the form that he showed - for country anyway - in the Euros and he's just getting his confidence back again.
"Wherever we decide to play him, I don't think one, he will complain - but he wouldn't complain anyway - and two, I think he would be reasonably happy with it."
Meanwhile, yesterday proved a big day for Newcastle keeper Rob Elliot as he returned to the international fold for the first time since damaging knee ligaments against Slovakia in March 2016, and the 31-year-old is desperate to make up for lost time.
Elliot said: "I'm pleased to be back, it's been a long time but hopefully I can put it behind me.
"When you get past 30 you start enjoying every opportunity, every occasion, because you know a few years down the line...
"Getting a chance to play for your country and playing for Newcastle, you need to just enjoy every moment."