Tuesday 17 September 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Old glory cannot protect a man from new failures'

Departing: Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Departing: Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In football, separation statements speak with a thousand tongues, so that FAI line about Martin O'Neill's reign ending by "mutual consent" maybe conveys little more than corporate politeness.

When he was called to emergency talks just 24 hours after Monday night's stultifying scoreless draw with Denmark, the Derry man may well have known the sands had run out on his stewardship of Ireland. But he understood too the stresses bearing down on an association bound to a contract in which, at €1.9m a year, he was being grotesquely overpaid.

O'Neill, what little we have learned of him in his five years with the Republic, has never been a meek or diffident sort under hostile scrutiny.

On the contrary, his reflex in a tight corner is to self-advertise. Just last month, when asked immediately after a Nations League defeat to Wales in Dublin what it was that sustained his confidence in Ireland's chances of qualifying for the 2020 Euro finals, his reply all but thieved the air from the room.

"Because I'm good," he said.

Even as a television pundit on ITV, O'Neill liked to remind usually younger studio panellists he was a double European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest. He's been many things in football, but never someone inclined to curtsy.

But how exactly will Irish football remember him?

His management of the Republic will be deemed a qualified success, if only because the team qualified for (and performed well at) Euro 2016. Yet there was seldom a true sense of him letting his formal, almost lawyerly guard down. Maybe of immersing himself emotionally in the role.

To that end, it was little surprise that the story of his departure broke from across the Irish Sea.

Because, from beginning to end of his term, Martin O'Neill always seemed a little disdainful of the Irish media's questioning ways. His routinely awkward post-game interviews with RTÉ's Tony O'Donoghue remained faithful to a perception that the idea of having to explain his decision-making always seemed, to him at least, faintly preposterous.

Until recent months, he'd only ever done a single one-to-one interview with an Irish newspaper, all the time remaining conspicuously accessible to certain English journalists.

So that distance always seemed protected; the impression that managing Ireland was many rungs of the ladder down from a vocation for O'Neill. Often, thus, he could come across a little lethargic and pre-occupied at press conferences. Someone who might well have been thinking innovative, beautiful thoughts, but couldn't quite summon the enthusiasm to communicate them.

Then again, too often those press conferences became uncomfortable, fire-fighting exercises too.

His appointment of Roy Keane as assistant on the basis that it would - as he put it - "awaken the country" never quite seemed anything more than a gamble in optics. The specifics of Roy's role as the best-paid number two in world football were never identified, leaving Keane himself to somewhat caustically observe once that it involved "making tea". Yet Roy, inevitably, was often the story.

There was a recurring impression of O'Neill being asked about the conduct of his assistant more than should ever have been tolerable.

As for the two Steves in the set-up, Walford and Guppy, their job descriptions remained as mysterious as their salaries.

The pity is that Martin O'Neill, maybe at another time in his life, should have been perfect for the Irish job. Because he is patently a far more layered and interesting man than the often sullen, sarcastic figure pulling the strings for Ireland these last five years.

Famously, when manager of Celtic, he was sipping wine in his office with then Rangers boss Alex McLeish, after an Old Firm game, when the great Derry Gaelic footballer Anthony Tohill walked in. "On your knees, McLeish," O'Neill reputedly bellowed, "and pay homage to a real star."

The first Catholic to captain Northern Ireland, he'd played Gaelic for Derry minors in Croke Park as well as a Hogan Cup final for St Malachy's of Belfast. His father, Leo, was a founding member of the GAA club in Kilrea, and O'Neill once gave a lecture at Áras an Uachtaráin, speaking beautifully about what it meant to be Irish.

In this, he referenced traveling down to the 1958 All-Ireland final with his mam to see his brother, Leo, playing for Derry against Dublin, and the profound sense of place that journey engendered.

In his management of Celtic (he was recommended to the club by Alex Ferguson), O'Neill became the first treble-winning manager since Jock Stein and guided them to the 2003 Uefa Cup final against Jose Mourinho's Porto. One year later, famously, he endeared himself to Celtic supporters by marching Neil Lennon towards them, gesturing defiantly at the end of a 0-2 Ibrox defeat to Rangers.

Some accused him of inflaming an already toxic atmosphere, yet O'Neill was unapologetic, suggesting that Lennon had been the target of sectarian and racist abuse. "Why should I regret it?" he asked journalists flatly.

That was the electric, high-energy O'Neill, once associated with the biggest English clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United.

But he stepped away from the post soon after when wife Geraldine was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and would remain out of the game for 14 months until appointed Aston Villa manager in August 2006. Around that time, he was shortlisted for the England job too.

Yet the big, marquee job in the Premier League never did come O'Neill's way.

Instead, after four years at Villa, he ended up at Sunderland where - after a terrifically invigorating start involving four wins in six games - reality gradually intruded again and he was sacked 15 months later.

So maybe the Martin O'Neill coming our way in November 2013 was a facsimile of the man we'd have so coveted around the time Mick McCarthy's stewardship of the Ireland team was unspooling this same month 16 years ago.

There were, undeniably, thrilling days on his watch with Ireland. But they were generally days that carried asterisks. It's maybe conveniently forgotten that the Italy team beaten at Euro 2016 was a virtual second-string and the German side downed in Dublin by Shane Long's goal played with all the competitive aggression of Morris Dancers waving hankies.

None of that should take away from the fact that Ireland won both those games through hugely disciplined, honest performances from O'Neill's players.

Yet his way was then to bemoan their technical limitations on the bad days. To lament the retirement of Robbie Keane. To imply that an international team broadly backboned by Championship players was, somehow, cursed to a life of misery.

Being outplayed by both Wales and Northern Ireland at the Aviva in recent months exposed the gaping holes in that theory. And O'Neill and his staff were simply being paid too much to be allowed to hide behind that bush.

Worse, the suspicion remained that, despite a verbal agreement to sign a new contract with Ireland last year, O'Neill might have gone to Stoke City had they offered him a contract of sufficient longevity.

He admits that Brian Clough thought him "arrogant" during his playing days with Forest, yet O'Neill's devotion to a man "who had charisma coming out of his boots" has never been equivocal. Keane, clearly, identifies with that devotion too.

Both have spoken of the "simplicity" of Clough's style of management. Yet Clough's last job in football ended a quarter of a century ago.

There's been little evidence of any tactical clarity in Ireland's play for a small eternity now and, with evidence of diminishing spirit in the Irish squad, it was becoming increasingly difficult to see how the FAI could afford to keep this management team in place any longer.

On Sunday week, the draw takes place for Euro 2020 qualifying, a tournament in which the association will host four games. Ideally, two of them home fixtures for the Republic.

John Delaney, his own position under a sharp, white light these days, could scarcely risk inertia here.

So with just one win from nine games in 2018, Martin O'Neill will have been smart enough to know precisely the tenor of dialogue he was about to encounter last Tuesday. In a 'Sunday Independent' interview with Paul Kimmage two years back, he talked of players today being "a bit more mollycoddled" than he'd like.

In this, he'll undoubtedly have his supporters. But the great managers must, by necessity, change with and adjust to the times. Because old glories will never protect a man from new failures.

O'Neill had to go. Take it, he didn't do so meekly.

Irish Independent

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