News Off the Ball

Monday 22 September 2014

Off The Ball: Hope abounds at dawn of new eras for Ireland

Open approaches of both Schmidt and O'Neill make a refreshing change for jaded supporters

Joe Molloy

Published 13/11/2013 | 01:00

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Martin O'Neill

Last Saturday was a significant one in the Irish sporting world. There was the unveiling of Martin O'Neill at the Gibson Hotel, followed by Joe Schmidt's first game in charge of Ireland.

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Lots to talk about and lots of change. An overriding theme had emerged by evening time. It centred on communication. The news was good. For it appears that lines of communication have been reopened on all fronts.

We had been stuck in Groundhog Day. The analysis surrounding virtually every Republic of Ireland match under Giovanni Trapattoni took on a familiar tone.

Liam Brady said we didn't have the players, Eamon Dunphy said they weren't allowed to play and the football supporting public duly took sides in a debate which was brutally simplistic and reductive. The notion itself of course had been laid down by a manager with a severely restricted grasp of the English language. Thus, there was no room for nuance or explanation. There was no way to garner any real understanding of why certain decisions were taken.

In the resulting vacuum, frustration eventually took hold. The Brady-Dunphy debate grew tiresome and repetitive. A disconnect of sorts emerged, between the fans and the team. The football was bad and the explanation of the philosophy was worse: 'Non sono campioni!' ('We are not champions!')

There were similar issues with the national rugby team under Declan Kidney, albeit far less pronounced. In Kidney's case, there was a deliberate choice to offer little or nothing in the way of analysis or explanation. His typical interview amounted to an exercise in evasion and vagueness. It's always been his way. But it rankled after poor performances.

And, suddenly, here we are. We get a glimpse of the new order. Martin O'Neill (left) sat in front of over 100 journalists in Dublin and answered questions with the intelligence and eloquence we had anticipated.

Different themes and decisions and ambitions were explored in depth. He said he would walk away if Ireland don't qualify for Euro 2016. He said of Roy Keane that sometimes a bit of volatility can help a squad. He said his enjoyment of the job will come from winning. We asked, he answered and we understood.

A few hours later, Joe Schmidt turned the usual post-match tv interview routine into a brilliantly incisive and honest appraisal of Ireland's performance. 'Untidy' and 'earnest' were two of the words he used. His delivery was calm and open. He pointed to statistics. He explained certain failings. Ultimately, there was a willingness to communicate. Nobody died as a consequence.

Results, of course, will still dictate. Declan Kidney won a Grand Slam in 2009. Trap brought us to Euro 2012. We were happy enough then. And it's true that incisive and honest appraisals of repeated defeats won't be enough for O'Neill or Schmidt.

But for over five years, we've been on the outside, making do with occasional crumbs. There was a lovely sense on Saturday of being welcomed back on board.

JM

Irish Independent

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