Friday 21 October 2016

James Lawton: FAI have perfect fit in Martin O'Neill as England roll the dice yet again with Sam Allardyce

Published 30/07/2016 | 02:30

Nothing in Allardyce's record suggests the kind of pedigree enjoyed by Alf Ramsey – or Martin O’Neill. Photo: Action Images via Reuters / Andrew Couldridge
Nothing in Allardyce's record suggests the kind of pedigree enjoyed by Alf Ramsey – or Martin O’Neill. Photo: Action Images via Reuters / Andrew Couldridge

This week's tale of the two international managers has featured not so much a demarcation line as a yawning chasm. On the one hand, there is the man who will again live life on the frontier of long-shot possibilities and another giving the sharp impression that his life's destiny has finally been fulfilled.

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There are other ways of defining the ground separating Martin O'Neill, renewing his challenge of shaping Ireland into consistent over-achievers, and Sam Allardyce apparently inheriting the England job not as an unlikely opportunity but a delayed rite of passage.

You don't have to be cynical to say it has been a long and not utterly convincing emergence.

If England might claim that, at least on the level of available natural talent, they have an edge over their cross-channel rivals, it is surely not in the matter of any hard-headed understanding of where they stand in the realities of the football life.

In contrast, Ireland's imminent extension of O'Neill's appointment speaks of confidence in a man whose demeanour and record suggests strongly that he can continue to develop a set of reasonable expectations on the road to Russia 2018.

In contrast, England's turn to Allardyce is made to seem just another roll of the dice. And the English FA's characterisation of their new man as a messiah waiting to happen is especially hazardous in the week which marks the 50th anniversary of England's only World Cup success.

Bobby Charlton, one of the heroes of that distant triumph, is unswerving in his view that the most important reason for that success was not the force of his shooting, and the refinement of his skill, or the sublime leadership of the late Bobby Moore, but the force of a manager who combined superb achievement at the club level with a deep understanding of the demands of high level international football.

Says Charlton: "Ever since 1966 my hope has been that England would find the kind of leadership we enjoyed back then. But the lessons of that time have been ignored and they have been clear all these years.

"Alf Ramsey laid down all the foundations necessary. He commanded respect and a clear understanding of what was required. It was the awareness of a team.

"Until the right man comes along with those same priorities I don't think England, however talented a new generation, can expect to repeat that old success."

Could Allardyce just be that man? Nothing in his record suggests the kind of pedigree enjoyed by Ramsey - or Martin O'Neill.

Ramsey played 34 times for England as a creative full-back who experienced the trauma of a brilliant Hungary's eruption at Wembley. He nurtured his game in the superb Tottenham team fashioned by the innovative Arthur Rowe.

As a manager he took third division Ipswich to the old first division title, dismissing the Spurs double-winners and Manchester United on the way.

Against this Allardyce's projection as the ideal candidate surely stretches credibility. The successor to Roy Hodgson - who unaccountably survived England's swiftest dismissal from the World Cup in Brazil two years ago - never played international football. His honours, as a player and a manager, make frugal reading and his managerial glory reached its height last spring when he guided Sunderland to Premier League salvation.

This, it is hard not to believe, is the work of a football artisan rather than an international game-breaker, but then the last man to mention this to is Big Sam himself.

Notoriously, he claimed that his biggest professional shortfall was to be born Sam Allardyce rather than Allardici. Had he enjoyed the latter fate, he suggested, not altogether whimsically, he might have been a top four manager like Roberto Mancini.

"I don't ever comment on this anymore because other people would jump on the back of it. I understand my ability as a manager and just do my job to the best of my ability."

O'Neill, if he was so inclined, might make similar claims - and on the foundation of a career much richer in achievement.

Inspired by Brian Clough's motivational genius, he won an English League title and the European Cup twice and played 64 times for Northern Ireland.

He led Celtic to the Scottish title three times before Rangers completely fell apart and he surrendered to Jose Mourinho's Porto only in extra-time in the 2003 UEFA Cup final, which was attended by an estimated 80,000 Celtic fans.

The following year Mourinho was enshrined as the Special One after winning the Champions League.

For O'Neill, the subsequent 12 years have scarcely been threadbare.

Now, no more than Allardyce, he can hardly be expected to transform swiftly the operating priorities of his nation's football development. He can say where the proper emphasis should be placed and in the meantime he can make the best of the players who come under his care.

So far, his record of gleaning all that they have to offer gives the FAI grounds to look to the future with real hope.

It also makes the more excessive celebration of his English rival smack of another serious case of delusion.

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