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Martin O'Neill dismisses talk over Roy Keane as he plots win on Paradise return

By Daniel O'Donnell

A year has passed since Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane were appointed to bring the good times back to Irish football.

If they can secure a positive result in Glasgow tonight to round it off, then the record books will show that it has been a success.

The chaos won't matter then, even if the build-up to yet another match has been dominated by the latest travails of the high-profile sidekick.

O'Neill knew that turning to Keane would bring attention, but he could never have envisaged the extent to which his tenure would be taken over by discussion of his assistant as opposed to the players they put out on the field.

From the Celtic speculation which enveloped the four summer internationals to his subsequent Aston Villa diversion and the autobiography release that generated a frenzy before Gibraltar and Germany, the focus has centred on a man whose job title indicates that he should be a step back from the limelight.

It is never that straightforward and, on his Celtic Park return, the initial emotion for O'Neill was weariness at having to go down a familiar road. "I made a statement earlier on and there's not really much more I can talk about," he said, before dismissing a query on whether Keane had seen fit to speak to the players about the incident in the team hotel on Wednesday.

"Why would he do that?" he responded. " No. He spoke to me, that's all that's mattered, and I don't think Robbie Keane (sitting next to O'Neill) as captain was particularly interested in hearing what happened."

The fear in these instances is that players lose their focus. But the manager is certain there will be no issue.

For encouragement, he can cite precedent. During the book storm in October, there was a school of thought which argued that the fuss would distract the Irish squad.

What followed was a week which culminated with the best qualifying result in recent history when John O'Shea popped up at the death to shock the world champions.

On that epic Gelsenkirchen evening, this group illustrated they are capable of blocking out the noise, and they will have to draw on those attributes again to prepare for a blood and thunder affair which will test their discipline and concentration.

O'Neill carved his reputation from the art of getting match-day motivation just right and it's his job to ensure that the players are in the right frame of mind to produce the goods against a confident Scotland side that will enjoy the majority of vocal support inside this famous old stadium - although the natives might be underestimating the amount of travelling fans who have grabbed hold of tickets.

The Derry man could have done without more Keane shenanigans, but the real setback which landed on his table yesterday was the news that both James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan would miss this evening's festivities. Whelan was always a long-shot but McCarthy - whose absence will put the booing spotlight solely on Aiden McGeady - appeared to have a chance throughout the week.

Again, O'Neill must look to Germany for inspiration and motivation. The comeback effort in the final half-hour was executed without Whelan and McCarthy, his first-choice midfielders, and subs Darron Gibson and Jeff Hendrick came to the fore during impressive cameos. Wes Hoolahan's link play also contributed to the period of pressure that culminated with O'Shea's leveller and, ironically enough, the injured Norwich playmaker might have been suited to the flow of a contest which should leave more holes defensively than your average qualifier.

The industry of James McClean and Jon Walters in wide roles is also respected. The former came in for glowing praise, with his ex-Sunderland boss noting a growing maturity when his recent letter explaining his poppy stance was raised in passing.

O'Neill mused: "I think he has definitely matured with a little bit of age, while he retains a great zest for the game that you see in training every day. It's pleasing to see him doing so well for us."

This is a night where O'Neill expects big characters to come to the fore. Naturally, the locals were keen to ask the former Hoops boss about the significance of coming back to Paradise. He planned a walk around after his press conference to bring back old memories.

Come tonight, the focus will shift to whether his players know where they are going. And if they can bring the spirit of Tbilisi and Gelsenkirchen to this encounter, they can take at least a point and enter the long winter break allowing themselves the occasional thought about the prospect of France in the summer of 2016.

That's one distraction that everyone will be happy to talk about.

Belfast Telegraph


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