Martin O’Neill: Scotland game is priority for the Republic of Ireland, not England

Ireland face England on Sunday before a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier against the Scots next week

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The Independent Football

After the allegations and admissions of the past week, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) could do with a diversion and the visit of England to Dublin will certainly distract thoughts for at least 90 minutes. As the former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr said yesterday of the fixture: "It's more than a friendly. Always."

But while the Irish police and Irish fans will have one eye, and one ear, on England supporters, the Irish manager, Martin O’Neill, will have both focused solely on what today can tell him about next Saturday’s European Championship qualifier against Scotland on the same pitch. Ireland facing England is really all about Scotland.

The Irish are fourth in a tight, tough Group D. Poland, Germany and Scotland, in that order, are above O’Neill’s men and, with Poland and Germany expected to win next Saturday, against Georgia and Gibraltar respectively, the Irish cannot afford to lose to Scotland.

A draw or a defeat would not eliminate Ireland, but it would leave them slightly adrift in the group, the Scots encouraged, the Irish dismayed, and questions would surface regarding O’Neill’s future in the job.

“It’s a big game for us. The consequences are always there. I have been in charge for five competitive games,” O’Neill pointed out. “Maybe it is a must-win game for us but I think that sort of pressure goes with the game nowadays. I have been in these situations before, dealt with them reasonably OK, some better than others. We will be ready for it.”

Pressed on the €5m (£3.6m) payment made over the Thierry Henry handball incident in 2009 (Fifa were alleged to have paid the FAI the money after Henry’s handball led to their elimination from the World Cup to stop them from complaining), O’Neill adroitly swerved the questions.

Alongside him, Sunderland’s 34-year-old  centre-back John O’Shea also side-stepped the issue, apart from taking the opportunity to slap down the former France manager Raymond Domenech for suggesting the €5m payment from Fifa should have gone to the Irish players: “It’s easy for him to say. It’s ridiculous. It wasn’t a case of monetary benefit.”

O’Shea added: “We still have a fantastic chance to qualify for France. In terms of stability, without a doubt it would be good for the manager to stay on. If he’s going to be integrating younger players into the squad, some old stagers like myself will have to move on.

“We’re looking to beat Scotland. If we beat England and Scotland, great. But let’s not take our eye off the prize, which is qualification for [Euro 2016 in] France.”

It will be the second meeting with the Scots in eight months. In November in Glasgow, the Irish performance was moderate and Shaun Maloney scored the game’s only goal.

That defeat heaped pressure on to Ireland, who played Poland at home in their next match in March. It ended  1-1, with Shane Long scoring a 90th-minute equaliser. With no Irish regulars in the top six clubs in the Premier League, Long is the highest-ranked Irishman, at Southampton. The green hope is that his goal against Poland proves a turning point. “It was special to get that last-minute goal,” said Shay Given, who is expected to win his 129th cap this week.

“It was a late goal but we definitely deserved it. We were in control in the second half and if we can take that second half into the Scotland game, it’ll be good. We were disappointed with how we played in Glasgow; we think we’re better than that. We really need to win.”

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