Sport Soccer

Monday 18 December 2017

Beware smooth answers – O' Neill is not the type to turn his back on a storm

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

MARTIN O'NEILL'S first day in the job was one of pre-occupation with his inner rebel. The man's mind is going to be a problem. It sprints too fast for an audience conditioned to Trap and the clunking process of untangling wires of broken English. O'Neill speaks so softly he might be in a confessional. But his sentences are trip-wired.

With the agenda skewering endlessly towards Roy Keane, every question eventually prefaced by another apology for our journalistic obsession, O'Neill grinned as if his head was full of the funniest joke. And we, quite possibly, were it.

He made no effort to dismiss concern over Keane's storied volatility, choosing instead to arch his eyebrows like a man who'd ordered a surprise gift from a pet-store only to get a live anaconda in the post.

Asked if he had spoken to other people about Roy before approaching him, O'Neill reflected: "No, no. The only one I considered speaking to was Sir Alex Ferguson. I was only joking! You're gonna get these things (laughter).

"I'm sure if I'd spoken to Alex, Roy wouldn't have been here. (Laughter). No. Actually, we met Alex on the way out. He was just leaving at the airport as I was coming in. But, no, I didn't speak to anyone.

"I'd met Roy on a number of occasions, been pretty impressed by him. And, more importantly, I think he's got a great hunger. He wants to do it.

PROVE

"Genuinely, I think he wants to prove himself in management. He was a fantastic footballer and, though he had a tough old time in the latter stages of managing Sunderland, I think people keep forgetting that Roy got them up in his very first season as a manager.

"Whatever sort of arguments he might have had with the players, he got them up into the Premiership.

"Maybe he had a tough old time at Ipswich but I think he wants to learn from those experiences and I think this might be – I say might be – the best way for him at the moment. He says this himself but I fully expect – hopefully after the contracts have finished – fully expect him to go on and manage."

O'Neill said that bringing Keane on board would be "part of the fun". Then the punchline: "I hope I'm saying that in another six months' time!"

It was a master-class in something Irish football has been missing from the top table. Communication. O'Neill was unfailingly courteous and laughed a lot. Within a single sentence, he could dance from graveside solemnity to schoolyard giggle.

His eyes sparkled with knowledge and wit and apparent understanding that first days are, essentially, showbiz.

In football, O'Neill is nobody's cuddly toy. But he has never felt a need to play the hard man, either. Perhaps only the truly confident feign innocence under scrutiny.

To understand O'Neill it is informative to understand his heroes. On Saturday, he was asked about the famous game at Lansdowne Road in July of '73 between Brazil and an all-Ireland team playing under the guise of 'Shamrock Rovers Select XI'.

It was a game staged at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and one that the then president of the IFA, Harry Cavan, tried in vain to scupper.

Derek Dougan was one of the main organisers of the fixture – a fact that essentially ended his international career.

Dougan's dream was that an all-Ireland team might, one day, take the field in competitive internationals. He had been convinced that a reason for George Best's waywardness was frustration at not having a serious international outlet for his talent.

Cavan, it is reputed, told Northern Ireland manager Terry Neill never to pick Dougan again. And he never did.

That day in Dublin, Dougan was one of three Irish goalscorers in a thrilling 4-3 defeat to the World champions.

For O'Neill, simply playing in that game constituted a statement of some substance. He was easily the youngest of the North's players involved and, for all he knew, could have been signing off on his own international retirement. The safe option, you can tell, never carried much appeal for O'Neill.

For sure, Keane will be a fundamental of O'Neill's story. And it might yet come to pass that his absence from Saturday's unveiling will – in time – be presented as some kind of prophetic metaphor. But, if anybody can make this maverick union work, O'Neill might just be the man.

Would he, we wondered, seek some tempering of Roy's notoriously blunt communication skills? "That might be top of the agenda with my next meeting with him," he smiled. "I think Roy himself has grown since his time in management. He's had a wee bit of time to reflect.

"I think he will feel that he might have attacked certain things a wee bit differently, but I don't want Roy to lose all those things that make him endearing to you."

His agreement with Keane, he told us, would be one forged on trust. And he was confident enough to express the view that he disagreed with the Corkman's stance 11 years ago in Saipan. This is not a man inclined to tiptoe across eggshells.

"I think it will be a change for him," O'Neill said of Keane. "He wants to pick up and hopefully learn some things, if that's at all possible. I don't want to sound like a teacher, but I think that this is what he wants to do."

All around, the optimism was keenly palpable. O'Neill would not retreat from tumult; he would expect it. You couldn't but think of Steve Staunton's mouth, dry as cotton, in the Mansion House, reading with painful slowness from a prepared script.

PLANS

Or Mick McCarthy at Lansdowne Road, responding to questions about his plans for the team with a pugilist's "I sometimes wonder about the qualifications that people have to ask those questions in the first place".

Or Trapattoni in the RDS, speaking a language that – even five years on – remained an impossible puzzle.

O'Neill just met each question with the easy poise of a man who has walked into and through far fiercer storms. He will be true to who he is and seek to light similarly defiant fires around him.

Remember, almost exactly nine years ago, he was threatened with charges of "bringing the game into disrepute" after a particularly rotten Old Firm contest at Ibrox of multiple dismissals and reciprocal hate.

Celtic lost the game 2-0 and, at its conclusion, O'Neill strode onto the field, threw an arm over Neil Lennon's shoulder and marched purposefully to the Celtic end to offer a clenched-fist salute. In an already incendiary atmosphere, this was playing with fire.

Lennon subsequently explained it thus: "In full view of the public and the cameras, he was saying: 'This is my team and these are my players and I back them to the hilt'."

The rebel in Martin O'Neill will take him where it has to go.

Irish Independent

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