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Martin O'Neill recalls major tournament experience with Northern Ireland


Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, left, and assistant Roy Keane during a training camp in Cork

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, left, and assistant Roy Keane during a training camp in Cork

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, left, and assistant Roy Keane during a training camp in Cork

Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill has taken a tongue-in-cheek dig at assistant Roy Keane's premature return from the 2002 World Cup finals.

Keane famously headed back from the Far East without kicking a ball in the competition after a bust-up with then Ireland boss Mick McCarthy over the facilities made available to the squad in Saipan.

However, asked about his own World Cup experience with Northern Ireland 20 years earlier, O'Neill said with a smile: "I'll tell you how much hope we went in with - the Northern Ireland FA hadn't booked a hotel for the second stages of it, never mind bloody no bibs arriving.

"It's interesting, the comparison. Imagine fouling up because there are no bibs arriving, no footballs? We had no hotel to go to. We were sleeping with the homeless in Madrid.

"But we got on with it. Well, we had no alternative. To be fair, if there had been a flight back to Belfast, we would all have been on it, but there wasn't. They had cancelled those as well.

"We went into the competition, played very, very strongly, beat Spain, got through to the quarter-finals, and it was a phenomenal tournament for us, really, really great."

O'Neill's comments, which caused great amusement with Keane sitting alongside him, came at Today FM's Bon Voyage to the Boys in Green event at a packed Cork Opera House on Wednesday evening, excerpts from which were broadcast by the radio station on Thursday evening.

The two men were questioned about Ireland's Euro 2016 prospects, and Keane about his critical assessment on Tuesday night's 2-1 friendly defeat by Belarus, during which he said he had wanted to "kill" some of the players.

Keane, who had earlier listened to some of the players giving their views about the tournament, said: "I said a few things to the media - I was joking with some of the stuff I said. Believe it or not, I was tongue in cheek.

"But sometimes it's nice to have a little setback to remind you of the hard work we have ahead. You look at the group we are in, it's going to be very, very difficult.

"But we have quality, we have spirit, good experience. I enjoyed listening to the players there, the passion they have, the belief.

"But of course, it's easier said than done. It's very good sitting here and making promises about how well we are going to do - we have to go out and do it. But we think we have a chance.

"Everyone keeps saying how hard it is going to be for us. You know, it will be hard for the other teams. Any team that plays against us will know they'll have to play very, very well to get a decent result against us."

Ireland launch their campaign against Sweden in Paris on June 13 and O'Neill has warned his players not to think any further ahead than those first 90 minutes.

He said: "We know how important the matches are. The games come in relatively quick succession and the point is this: you start from minute one. Don't be starting to think about how many points you might get from a certain game.

"You play three matches, you go for it. The first, Sweden, becomes really important. Be ready for it, be ready for the game and we can do it."