Belfast Telegraph

World Cup 2018: Draw gives Republic of Ireland some fresh hope for the future

By Daniel McDonnell

Ten days ago, Martin O'Neill sat in the small press room at Sligo Rovers' Showgrounds base and acknowledged that Ireland's World Cup 2018 campaign could end up being all about rebuilding.

With an ageing dressing room and an absence of obvious alternatives coming up through the ranks, there was a feeling that a lowly seeding would make the next couple of years a process of transition.

The FAI are never going to write a campaign off as they need to be competitive to keep punters coming to the Aviva Stadium, but with progression to Euro 2020 so important because of the co-hosting aspect, there was a case for being realistic about Russian expectations if Saturday's draw fell in line with its predecessors.

Then Wales came out of the hat as the top seeds in Ireland's group and the perspective changed in an instant. If it had been Germany or Spain, to pick the two most obvious examples, then a pool with an improving Austrian side that is Euros-bound and a Serbian operation that is sure to be boosted by the promotion of the U-20 world champions, then O'Neill and the rest of the Irish delegation would have travelled home with an understandable basis for feeling slightly despondent.

The Derryman had denied beforehand that the identity of the opponents for the next campaign would have any impact on whether he wanted to stay around depending on what happens in the conclusion of the Euros race this autumn.

He was never going to admit it in Russia but the open-looking nature of Group D paints a slightly brighter picture of the road ahead.

The response from the dressing room will be interesting too. Senior citizens such as Shay Given (39), Robbie Keane (35), John O'Shea (34) and a host of players in their early 30s who came onto the scene a bit later might suddenly be looking three years down the line instead of one. The speculating could be groundless; Keane is no longer a guaranteed starter and he's hinted that making France would be a perfect swansong.

But with that prospect in doubt and a bit of unfinished World Cup business hanging over from an infamous Paris trip, there will be an understandable temptation for the older members of the current panel.

"By the time it gets under way again, there's another year gone," O'Neill (below) says. "Some players that are 33 now, they might say they're a year older ... but I think, again, that it's hopefully part of my job to see if we can get players a bit younger into the squad who are capable of coping at that level and not only coping at it but relishing the challenge of it."

The confirmation of the fixture schedule yesterday, a centrally generated process tied in with the new TV deal, has effectively dealt Ireland with an identical programme to the current Euros campaign in terms of the timing of home and away fixtures.

It means three big trips in autumn 2016 with Serbia up first, defining Dublin games in March and June against Wales and Austria respectively and then a concluding showdown with the Welsh on the final day in November 2017. Like Poland this October, the challenge is to make it relevant.

"The fixtures we have been given are challenging with three of the first four matches away from home similar to the group we are in at the moment," said O'Neill. "However, we have to play everybody at some stage so let's look forward to it when the time comes."

Presuming that he stays around himself, O'Neill knows it is necessary for a new brand of leaders to emerge even if the old guard contemplate prolonging their stay. Seamus Coleman will turn 28 in the first phase of the Russian race, and his Everton pal James McCarthy will be 26 that December.

"That's what you're hoping for," stressed O'Neill, when asked if this was their moment to come to the fore. "The more experience they get the better. They can only improve and a couple of other younger players will do too."

Belfast Telegraph


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