Steven Reid: Utilising dark arts has made the future brighter for O'Neill's streetwise squad
Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30
Late last year, Martin O'Neill was asked a question about tactics and the importance they play in international football.
The reply, though disguised with humour, had an edge to it - as so many of O'Neill's answers tend to.
"Tactics have their place," O'Neill said. "But can you imagine Alex Ferguson looking at a team sheet and seeing Giggs, Beckham, Keane and Scholes' names on it? No doubt he'd say, 'do you know, I think we stand a chance against Luton today'."
His point was obvious. There are many ways to win and lose a game of football, and the way a team is tactically set up is just one of them.
So, when much of the post-match discussion from Friday's victory over Switzerland focussed on the fact O'Neill's 4-4-2 starting formation is a recipe for disaster in the modern game, I had to allow myself a smile.
"Formations," Slaven Bilic said in advance of Euro 2012, "are practically redundant, because of the fluidity within almost every team. The reality is that players interchange positions on a continual basis."
For me, having played the game for 17 years at professional level, and having been paid by Reading to coach since last summer, my inclination is to agree with what Bilic and O'Neill have to say on the matter.
Or, even better, to reference Alex Ferguson's autobiography (his first one) when he pointed out how 'players win you games - not tactics'.
I'm not underplaying the relevance of systems in modern day football, at all. However, some things carry more relevance - and game management is one of them. There's an old saying that good players get you points in football, but intelligent ones get you silverware - and it's so true. Think of the Chelsea team that defied the odds, and Bayern Munich, to win the 2012 Champions League title.
Only a streetwise side could have done something like that, absorbing that amount of pressure before landing a sucker punch. And over the last year or so, I am beginning to see those types of qualities coming into this Irish side - with Friday being the latest example.
As a spectacle, the game was awful to watch and the value of the win isn't particularly high. Yet it was still a win, another to add to the ones registered against Georgia, Gibraltar, Germany and Bosnia - that's five victories, plus one draw, from seven games this season.
And what it is saying to me is that O'Neill and Roy Keane have instilled game management into this squad.
Believe me, it's hard to coach, trying to tell players when the time is right to build from the back and when you simply have to go 'route one'. It's hard to explain when, and where, you should concede a foul - perhaps even pick up a yellow card or slow the game down and introduce some of the darker arts into your play.
If this sounds a little silly, then consider the following. In the Euro 2000 qualifiers, Ireland went to Skopje and went 1-0 up on Macedonia - a lead they held until deep into stoppage time. A month earlier, they were holding Croatia to a 0-0 draw when Davor Suker popped up to score the winner, a forerunner for what happened in Macedonia when Goran Stavrevski got their equaliser.
Fast forward a few years. It's 2005. Ireland are leading Israel 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier in Tel Aviv. Abbas Suan gets a stoppage-time equaliser. A few months later, we're 2-0 up on Israel. They score twice before half-time to get a draw - which, pretty much, stopped us going to Germany.
Those were the moments when the dark arts were needed. When the ball had to be kicked into the stand. When a cynical foul had to be made. When the game had to stop being a spectacle and, instead, had to look ugly. When you did what you had to do to win.
As I got older, I began to instinctively become aware of when the time was right to be cynical. Just after scoring was always a moment when a team can visibly relax, or more to the point, switch off.
Just before half-time, if we were ahead, I'd frequently get the ball, have a midfielder just inside me looking for a pass and I'd ignore him, choosing instead to pump it long into the channel - hoping we'd get a throw in.
Time after time, I'd be asked: 'why didn't you pass it?'. And time after time, I'd point to the fact that it was 1-0 on 40 minutes and I wanted it to still be 1-0 at the interval.
Early in this Irish side's development, you could notice how they lacked that cynical edge.
Remember the home games against Austria and Sweden in 2013? A goal up against Austria with a minute to go, we tried to build up the play from inside our own half, when the only thing to do was head for the corner flag. Inevitably, we lost the ball. And David Alaba equalised.
Later that September, Robbie Keane put us ahead against the Swedes but we failed to hold on, losing 2-1.
Harsh lessons were learned, though. When I think of this successful qualifying campaign, what's noticeable is how this time the narrative changed.
This time it was Ireland who delivered the late goals - a 90th minute winner to beat Georgia in Tbilisi, a 90th minute equaliser to draw with Poland and Germany, before second-half goals from Shane Long and Jon Walters yielded six points from the home games against Germany and Georgia.
Some old failings were still apparent - Scotland managing a second-half equaliser against us in June, Bosnia cancelling out Robbie Brady's late strike in Zenica - but you could see how the team had learned.
You could see the way they saw the game out against Germany after Long's goal, and how they provided answers to all of Bosnia's questions in the second leg of the play-off.
I saw the same 'game intelligence' on Friday. And - just like Leicester City - I am looking at a team who struggle to win possession but who manage to win matches.
All of which has got me optimistic for the summer ahead. While, initially, my reaction to our Euro 2016 draw was 'oh no, not again', all of a sudden I'm thinking we stand a good chance of getting out of this group.
So much, clearly, depends on the Sweden game. Should we leave Paris with a result, we have a superb chance of reaching the last 16 - because, while Belgium have some big names, they also have players who have had poor seasons - Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Christian Benteke - while others, including Benteke, Vincent Kompany, Divock Origi and Kevin De Bruyne - are struggling with injury.
Bear in mind too, that Italy aren't as formidable as Italian teams of old.
The glass is half full.