Monday 26 September 2016

Smart, serious and principled: managers of the boys in green

Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt
Martin O'Neill

There's a touch of Hollywood to the timing: just over an hour after the Irish rugby team take on France in the World Cup in Cardiff tomorrow, their football counterparts square up to Poland in the final game of a long, tough qualifying campaign for the European Championships next summer. It promises to be an evening to savour for armchair sports fans, and one that could come to define the reigns of the two men in charge: Joe Schmidt and Martin O'Neill.

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Different codes and different expectations, but these are two men with much in common. Both are well-educated: Schmidt was a school teacher for several years in his native New Zealand, while O'Neill studied law at Belfast's Queens University before quitting to sign for Nottingham Forest. Had rugby and football not worked out for these men, Schmidt might be a school principal and O'Neill a respected barrister.

Both have adopted a similar approach when it comes to the media: polite, courteous and straight-talking, yet never running the risk of embarrassing themselves or their respective employers, the IRFU and the FAI. Unlike other managers, neither man has been moved to criticise under-performing players and one gets the distinct impression that what happens in the dressing room, stays there. Journalists who have spent time around both squads in recent months have reported a sense of camaraderie that isn't always present, especially in the football set-up.

While other managers have to contend with squad unrest and pressure from influential senior players, both Schmidt and O'Neill appear to have galvanised their men and placated those who might have felt disgruntled not to get the opportunities they thought they deserved. One sports writer who has spent considerable time around both managers says their "sense of decency" is palpable, "but despite their charms, the media are largely kept at arm's length. We don't get quite as much access as we would like and I think they're careful to protect their younger players".

Despite their similarities of temperament and management, the CVs look very different when it comes to playing career. Schmidt never came close to fulfilling the dream of every New Zealand boy: lining out for the All Blacks. His playing days were in the amateur era and he wasn't nearly accomplished enough to interest the top clubs in his native country. A year overseas teaching at the Wilson's College secondary school in Co Westmeath led him to finish his playing days in the colours of Mullingar RFC.

It was all so different for O'Neill. He joined a Nottingham Forrest side in 1971 that was playing second-tier English football, but by the end of the decade would be champions of the old First Division. He also played a key role in this once modest club, winning the European Cup on two occasions. O'Neill played under Brian Clough, one of the most charismatic managers in the history English football.

At 63, O'Neill is in the autumn of his years and unlikely to get a bigger job than the one he has now. Schmidt, at 50, is still comparatively young and if Ireland were to reach the World Cup final, he would be surely a strong contender for future All Blacks manager.

Both are devoted family men: O'Neill took time out of the game to care for his wife Geraldine when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2005; Schmidt has fronted a campaign to raise awareness of epilepsy - his 11-year-old son Luke suffers from the condition.

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