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It'll take time for new Irish stars to step it up: O'Neill

 

By Damian Spellman

Martin O'Neill has told his Republic of Ireland newcomers not to be discouraged as they attempt to follow in his footsteps and make their way in international football.

O'Neill won 64 senior caps and played in a World Cup quarter-final for Northern Ireland during a distinguished playing career which also saw him taste European Cup glory with Nottingham Forest.

However, he admits even he found the step up to the bigger stage a challenge, echoing comments from his assistant Roy Keane last week in which the former Manchester United skipper said he did not find his feet on the international stage until he had more than 20 appearances under his belt.

Explaining the gulf in class between his inexperienced side and friendly opponents France after Monday night's 2-0 defeat in Paris, O'Neill said: "It's the step up. I think we all recognise that.

"I've played international football and in my early days I found it very difficult. The matches were very, very hard.

"It was when I was playing European football with Nottingham Forest and competing and winning big trophies when I found I could deal with it better.

"I was 25, 26 at that time and I could deal with the football better, and I don't think that's changed a bit. This is a massive step up, it's incredible."

The Republic's central midfield trio of Declan Rice, Callum O'Dowda and Alan Browne, who have only a handful of caps between them, found themselves pitched into battle with Steven Nzonzi, Blaise Matuidi and Corentin Tolisso at the Stade de France, and O'Neill was not at all surprised at how difficult their task proved to be.

He said: "The French players were athletic and lean, brilliant on the ball and really good. That is not the player, with respect, that young Browne is playing against every single week.

"He's a midfielder for Preston. He played in the game and it's a massive step up, it's an incredible step up. That's what you have to try to cope with and that's what these players have to try and do.

"They have to try and go from this football that they play in the Championship - where it's very competitive and sometimes it's compelling, but it's not the quality that you're talking about here.

"I think it's a great experience, even if he (Browne) hasn't come off all that well at the end. But the step up, it's day and night."

Meanwhile, former Republic of Ireland international Keith Andrews had paid tribute to John O'Shea as he prepares to make his 118th and final appearance for his country.

O'Shea (37) will run out against the USA in Dublin on Saturday evening to receive the acclaim of the nation he has represented at senior level with such pride for almost 17 years, and will do so having left a major impression on his old team-mate.

Andrews said: "I remember his dedication and humility.

"Playing at that level and then coming into an environment where he would be playing with Championship players, lower Premier League players after playing the previous week with Paul Scholes or Roy Keane or David Beckham or whoever it was, and there was just nothing big-time about him whatsoever.

"Was it '09, the Champions League final? We were all in the hotel watching him (playing for Manchester United against Barcelona) and he was coming in to us the next day.

"What a servant and what a player he's been over such a long, long period."

O'Shea has indicated his intention to play on in the short-term, but Andrews is confident his time at Sunderland has given him priceless experience of what is required if he decides to move into management one day.

He said: "The experiences he's had there, the managers, the ups, the downs, he will have got so much from that."

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