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O'Neill to keep tight Irish ship

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IT really is a peculiar situation we find ourselves in. A kind of endless limbo waiting for some football, something to get out teeth into. The start to Martin O'Neill's time has been featureless since the final whistle sounded in Poznan back in November.

Yesterday, O'Neill gave us another glimpse of the closed-in way he seems to favour when he's running a team.

He spoke at length and always with an engaging smile but said not much at all.

"The perfect football manager," said one wise football man when O'Neill's straight bat approach was explained.

For the game against Serbia, there was no team announcement and presumably, everyone in the team hotel in Portmarnock will be up on their toes as a result.

That leaves the rest of us like school kids with our noses pressed against frosted glass, trying to see something, anything of the mysteries contained within.

If nothing else, this will be a tight camp with information choked at the door of the team hotel in Portmarnock and it's a long time since that could be said about the Ireland senior team.

Over the years, it's been a sieve. Rarely does an hour pass after some major event before the full story is known across Dublin. It will be a big surprise if that is the case with this management team.

Giovanni Trapattoni didn't really care what any of the media thought or wrote but O'Neill and Keane do and they want to manage it carefully.

Trap decamped from Milan every once in a while, did the football match and the photo opportunity thing and then went home, occasionally via London so that the wife could do some shopping.

No amout of well written criticism and analysis could impact on the stone wall of experience and complete self-belief Trapattoni has built around himself and he was equally aware of the outpouring of kind headlines which followed qualification for Euro 2012 as he was of the increasingly negative response to him in the aftermath – which is to quote another Irish manager, he hadn't a 'Scooby Doo' and it suited him just fine.

In one way at least, he was the ideal manager to take over from Steve Staunton and begin work in what was then a nasty atmosphere surrounding the senior team. It was all so much hot air to him and he didn't care what people thought of him.

RHYTHM

With O'Neill, every word is parsed and nothing gets out that he doesn't want to get out. Most importantly, he is setting his own agenda from the start and a rhythm which he can choose to alter or not as he sees fit.

The tradition has generally been, though not always, to release the team but O'Neill chose not to and we might as well get used to that. Unless he has a good reason to, it looks like he will keep his cards close.

From the start of this spell with his players, O'Neill wanted to make a point about the way his words about Ireland's upcoming talent pool had been interpreted. He believed that he may have used the word 'concern' ill-advisedly and as a result, a gloomy view of the future emerged.

Both he and Keane worked hard in the last few days to clarify that position and as a result, a more upbeat prognosis of the current and future health of Ireland's senior group was displayed.

Imagine searching for such subtlety and nuance in anything Trapattoni said or did. Contrast this approach to the loud and perverse rants about James McCarthy (left) or Darron Gibson which were a regular feature and caused such unnecessary negative publicity.

No, this pair are as well-versed in the narrative of football in these parts as Trapattoni was not and aware of the sensitivities of players and fans.

O'Neill is also and very obviously aware of the sensitivtes of club managers in England and Scotland and on several occasions over the last few days, he spoke about not making demands on players engaged in the business end of the season with their clubs.

He will play ball with them even if that could mean a flood of substitutions and a confused final half hour for the paying public, but such is international football nowadays.

For all their efforts to talk up the potential contained in the Irish player pool this time around, neither O'Neill or Keane could avoid the reality that the team which does start against Serbia, if it was the strongest we have, would not differ a great deal from Trapattoni's final selection against Austria.

But O'Neill must work his way through all the options on offer before making hard decisions. Patience is required.


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