O'Neill relights fire for fans and players
Published 18/11/2015 | 02:30
Forty-five minutes before kick-off, I knew we would do it.
What convinced me? It was Robbie Keane's attitude. No sooner had the Bosnian goalkeeping coach ventured into the Irish half of the field to be in a position to collect Asmir Begovic's practice clearances than Keane was over to confront him.
I'm no lip-reader but I've a fair idea what Robbie had to say and a clear understanding of what he meant. "This is our turf. We decide what happens here," was his attitude.
Fired up by that incident, I had to deliver an internal memo to myself: "Steven, you've retired, calm down." But there are certain nights when the adrenaline flows and the passion gets to you and Monday was one of those nights.
Never mind that Bosnia appeared at the last World Cup. Never mind that they have players in the Champions League and we don't. Never mind that they'd finish the first half with 59pc possession. We'd finish it with a 2-0 win and a ticket to France.
I loved Monday. It reminded me of the old Lansdowne Road, the days and nights when we'd take on the best in the world, look them in the eye and say 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough?'
The atmosphere was special and when people question the relevance of a crowd in games of this magnitude, then they don't understand the lift that 50,000 voices screaming encouragement can give you.
They don't understand how panic can set into visiting teams, how players as accomplished on the ball as Edin Visca and Edin Dzeko can lose their composure, how a careless throw-in can be conceded on 23 minutes and a penalty given away from the resulting throw-in a minute later.
Instead, they'll look at bland statistics which suggest Bosnia are controlling possession when in actual fact the team without the ball is the one that is dictating events, as Ireland did right through the match.
Initially aggressive in our pressing, Ireland noticeably retreated deeper after going 1-0 ahead. And yet did we ever look in danger of going out of this tie? Truthfully?
So much of their possession was meaningless, a series of passes across their backline which supposedly was intended to open the Irish team up but ended up proving to be a fruitless exercise as Martin O'Neill set up his team in a narrow, compact shape to counteract the Bosnian threat.
Tactically, O'Neill got it spot-on over the two legs. He recognised Bosnia's strengths but also their weaknesses and adjusted his line-up accordingly, ceding possession in preference of retaining a solid shape, working tirelessly on set-pieces, which eventually lead to Jon Walters' second goal.
At this stage, a new contract is inevitable.
What does he have that other managers don't? To me, it's clear. There is an enthusiasm about playing for Ireland again, a desire for players - even substitutes - to want to turn up and be a part of it. Was this always the case under Giovanni Trapattoni?
Not if you remember the Macedonian trip in 2011.
Now, it's different. Now you can sense the togetherness. And you also know there is a fear factor there, too. I remember speaking to a player, shortly after O'Neill got the job and hearing how the squad had been told that they were welcome to withdraw from any squad they chose to but that, significantly, he could not guarantee them a return ticket.
Those words struck a chord, as did a few words we exchanged at West Brom a couple of years back.
Sitting near each other in the stand at the Hawthorns, we got talking at half-time. Straightaway he said to me, "I wish I had signed you for Aston Villa" and as we spoke for a few more minutes, you could get a sense of why people would want to play for him.
He has an aura, an enthusiasm for life and the game that makes you warm to him. People might downplay the significance of those qualities, particularly today in a world where analysis forms such a huge part of a manager's day.
But give me a manager who has the ability to make you feel good about yourself over one who is a nerd on the training pitch and in the video room. I've had both. And I know which approach is the better one.
Yet with O'Neill, every box is ticked. He is underrated tactically and, in the view of someone now working as a coach at Championship level, is a manager whose tactical acumen is one I deeply admire. No team is set up as smartly as Ireland were on Monday unless the manager knows his onions.
And no team gives that kind of effort for their manager unless they respect and warm to him.
This team does that. But now the hard work begins for O'Neill. Throughout the campaign he has chopped and changed his team, but now it's clear he has found his best XI - Shane Long is the only player who should come into that starting line-up at the expense of Daryl Murphy.
I'd have Murphy, Long, John O'Shea and James McClean on the plane. Robbie Keane and Shay Given simply have to travel for their experience and leadership alone.
Marc Wilson and Paul McShane offer versatility and character as do David Meyler, Stephen Ward and Stephen Quinn.
That leaves Darron Gibson and Aiden McGeady in need of a big six months. Similarly, the number three goalkeeper will come down to a scrap between David Forde, Rob Elliot and Keiren Westwood. Forde will go.
My squad for the Euros:
Randolph, Given, Forde; Coleman, Keogh, Clark, Brady, Ward, O'Shea, Wilson, McShane; McGeady, McClean, Meyler, Quinn, Walters, Hoolahan, Hendrick, Whelan, McCarthy; Murphy, Keane, Long