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 player 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 as a player, 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.”
Ireland’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 players. That is not the player, with respect, that young Browne is playing against every single week.
“He’s a midfield player 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 that these players are up against.
“I think it’s a great experience, even if he (Browne) hasn’t come off all that well at the end. But talking about the step up – it’s day and night.”