Monday 24 October 2016

'We don't want to lose the part of the game that defines us as a nation'

O'Neill wary of losing 'essential ingredient of Irish-ism' in quest for flair as he delights in proving critics wrong after uplifting 2015

Published 23/12/2015 | 02:30

Martin O’Neill clearly respects what Roy Keane brings to the Ireland set-up. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE
Martin O’Neill clearly respects what Roy Keane brings to the Ireland set-up. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE

It will be a happier Christmas in the O'Neill household this year.

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Twelve months ago, the defeat to Scotland took some of the enjoyment from the Ireland manager's favourite part of the calendar.

The 2015 festivities will be enhanced by the feeling of sweet satisfaction which has accompanied qualification for Euro 2016. It lingered into the celebrations at his daughter's wedding earlier this month; he feared the alternative outcome could have impacted on that special day.

"When that final whistle went against Bosnia, I thought 'I'm actually going to enjoy this wedding now'," said O'Neill, speaking in a reflective interview with Setanta Sports which was aired last night.

"Because that was hanging over me. While I was sure it would be great, and it turned out great, that was the second thought that came to me; I'm actually going to enjoy the wedding, I'm not going to be morose."

He confessed that the defeat in Glasgow was painful, yet the general theme that has run through O'Neill's series of end-of-term appearances is that he believes others were guilty of adopting a gloomier stance on his team's in-running position.


On Setanta, he elaborated on those feelings, and tackled the perception that his approach across the campaign veered towards conservatism at key junctures. His promotion of Robbie Brady and the Wes Hoolahan form the counterpoint.

The winners always write the history and O'Neill completed his mission successfully. He did not object to the use of the word 'vindication'.

"It's always a case of trying to prove people right if they've backed you or prove people wrong if they've been forcibly against you," he continued, with another nod to his critics in the RTE studio.

"I felt all sorts of emotions at the final whistle. Relief that we'd done it, sharing in the great delight of the fans immediately surrounding me and that word vindication - that John Delaney and the board had faith in me to try and restore a bit of self-confidence and self-belief about the team again.

"All of those things seemed to come to fruition, and I was delighted."

That feeling extended to his satisfaction with the man who he encouraged to take a full part in the post-match celebrations.

Roy Keane was reluctant to join O'Neill in the centre of the pitch to receive the acclaim of the masses but, in most areas, they are on the same page.

The unlikely combination has worked, with the No 1 again acknowledging that he did have a few worries about how the Corkman might react to a position where he didn't have the casting vote.

"Here is the one that I thought might have caused difficulty," he said, "Roy as a manager, a young manager at Sunderland and Ipswich, he'd been making decisions. Now he wasn't going to make the final decision. He was going to put forward his viewpoint and you respect it but he wasn't making the final decision.

"Perhaps occasionally he might disagree and that might cause a problem; it could cause a problem with any assistant but certainly with Roy who would want the final decision. Actually, it has not been a problem.

"Roy doesn't smile too often and that does help and he has an image to keep as well, he's supposed to be the growler. Sometimes, it's absolutely spot on, and sometimes it can be misplaced.

"He's excellent company. . . he has been very important to us. He is an iconic figure, not only in Irish football and not only in British football but also in world football. The number of people all over the world who come to him asking for autographs and photographs is great to see, he's not been forgotten at all and why should he be?

"He's a world class player despite what Sir Alex Ferguson says because he drove that side for about a decade. He drove them on to success after success. They had great, great players playing for Manchester United but none of them was as forceful as he was.

"He wanted to go and prove himself in management, he did really fine at Sunderland and I think he learnt a lot from the Ipswich thing.

"We seem to get on reasonably well - that could blow up at any given minute, the way things happen. I think I'm a generation and a half older than him, so he allows me to occasionally pontificate about subjects I haven't got a clue about. And we get on fine. Really we get on fine.

"We have to try and put all that energy and enthusiasm into the team.

"I think we're like-minded in certain things, I think we're poles apart in certain things."

The pair appear to have struck the right balance and O'Neill's musings on his sidekick frequently have a tongue-in-cheek tone that play up to the caricature. What's clear is that O'Neill respects what Keane brings to the group, and the wider acceptance of his importance will make him attractive to prospective employers.

"Will he go and manage again? Absolutely. This has been quite good for him, to sit out, and have someone older in the forefront of things. Who knows what might happen? Who knows what might happen in a few weeks?

"I'm quite sure he'll be very successful. At the end of that game against Bosnia, he almost didn't want to take any credit for what had happened. But he's been excellent. Excellent for me, excellent for the team and I believe he's been excellent for the nation."

The same sentence could apply to Jonathan Walters, the hero on the pitch, who is sure to collect the Player of the Year gong when the FAI awards take place in March. O'Neill says that all the plaudits are deserved.

"Jon Walters has been our outstanding player. There have been a number of very, very fine performances. You would not say that Jon has the same natural talent as some of he others but he is the heartbeat of the side.

"He does things in the game for us that go unnoticed, and he also gets crucial goals.

"His whole attitude pervades the dressing-room and that's very, very important."

Walters' attributes are a necessary ingredient when the flair players can be named on the fingers of one hand.

"Hopefully in generations to come, we will have the whole package," O'Neill says. "At the moment we don't but we don't want to lose that part of the game that still defines us as a nation.

"We have to retain that essential ingredient, that Irish-ism, that never-say-die spirit, that great desire to stay in the game that we have in our side."

The desire to prove people wrong has always underpinned that spirit.

The Martin O'Neill interview will be repeated today on Setanta Sports at 5.30, Christmas Eve at 3.30 and Christmas Day at 5.00

Irish Independent

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