John Aldridge: FAI must ensure Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane sign contracts immediately

SoccerBy John Aldridge
Aldo was a star for both Liverpool and Ireland
Aldo was a star for both Liverpool and Ireland

Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane are Ireland's best hope of reaching the 2018 World Cup finals - so the FAI must ensure the pair sign their new contracts now.

Martin and Roy have verbally agreed new deals to continue as Ireland's management team but they have yet to put pen to paper on those contracts.

This issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible because there is no better man than Martin to be steering the Ireland ship.

Until his contract is signed and sealed, we have to be a little con­cerned that he might walk away if these opening qualifiers don't go according to plan and that would be a hammer blow to our hopes.

Martin and Roy produced miracles to get us qualified for the Euro 2016 finals and the players' performances in France were a credit to them.

This is the next chapter in the Ireland story and if we are being honest, we are heading to our opening World Cup qual­ifier with hope as much as expectation in our hearts.

We all know that Ireland are lacking the quality players that can win you games against top class opposition, with the retirement of Robbie Keane this week a reminder that we need to find another goalscorer if we are going to plot a course to Russia 2018.

The heart and passion Ireland teams have always shown can take you a long way, even if we are likely to be shown up at times against teams that have class players who make the difference.

So what can we do to unearth a new generation of players who can follow in the footsteps of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given?

Well, the answer to that question is probably not one we want to consider because there isn't an obvious way to magic up players of that quality.

Not too many potential Irish super­stars have made a breakthrough in the last decade and that is primarily because Premier League clubs in England are a closed shop for players that may be potentially talented.

Such is the cash at the disposal of the top clubs that they don't need to take chances of giving a British or Irish kid a chance in their first team.

Instead, Manchester United, Chel­sea and the rest just spend £30million signing a midfielder they barely need, with the young kid who may be making progress in their academy pushed even further down the pecking order in his dream of a first team breakthrough.

This situation isn't going to change any time soon but I believe there is still a chance for an Irish kid with talent to make his break in the game.

You look at someone like Gareth Bale, who came from a humble back­ground in Wales and got his chance at a lower level of English football before proving his worth and going all the way to the top with Real Madrid.

Bale is an exceptional player and may be a once in a lifetime talent for a small country like Wales but there could be a Bale somewhere in the making in Ireland as we speak.

All the FAI can do is throw their resources at grassroots football and hope that a few heroes realise their potential.

It's always going to be difficult for a small nation like Ireland to match the resources of a sporting giant like England.

You only have to look at what Britain have done at the Olympics over the past years, with the money they have pumped in from the National Lottery helping them to finish second in the medals table for Rio 2016.

That was a remarkable achieve­ment and showed what is possible if sporting resources are directed in the right way, with coaching and training facilities helping to hone world-class athletes.

In many ways, the money Britain has pumped into their Olympic pro­gramme has helped to turn their sportsmen into professionals and when they are competing against amateurs, the result is gold medals.

Another problem soccer has in Ireland is that is has to compete with the wonderful sports under the GAA banner and a lot of our finest young sportsmen direct their focus in that direction rather than to soccer.

You would like to believe that real talent will shine through in the end and while we are lacking some top-level performers in the Ireland squad right now, we should go into tomorrow night's game in Belgrade with confidence.

Shane Long and Jon Walters can do a job for us up front and we saw the quality Robbie Brady can bring to the party with his wonderful displays at Euro 2016.

Big Shane Duffy, who will be back next month, is a talent and Martin O'Neill is a manager who has a proven track record of getting results when it matters most at club and interna­tional level.

Martin knows that he faces a tough task to get us through to the World Cup finals but let's hope we can get a positive result in Serbia and it will send us on our way.

Wales and Austria will be difficult opponents in what is a challenging qualifying group, but at least we have avoided one of real big-hitters that may have had too much for us.

Ireland are likely to face a difficult few years until we find a few more players to add a touch of class to the qualities that have carried us so far.

Whatever happens tomorrow night in Belgrade, we need to make sure Martin and Roy sign those much dis­cussed contracts and commit for the duration of this qualifying campaign.

Ireland's management duo offer us our best hope of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time since 2002 - let's make sure they are signed.