Monday 11 December 2017

'Each nation has their own DNA and we have to work with that'

O'Neill getting to grips with life on the international stage as he ponders players and tactics for friendly double-header

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

AMID the fuss and excitement around the dawn of a fresh era, the turn of events which has restored the novelty value of international football, it must be remembered that it's all a little new for Martin O'Neill as well.

This is professional football, but not as he knows it. It struck him the other day that when his team flies back from Poland next Tuesday night, he won't see them as a group again until March. While he has a reputation as a thinker who ponders the smallest details, it's more contemplation time than he would like between work assignments.

That's why, in terms of preparation, the sprint into this November double-header will be followed by a marathon period of evaluation.

His public want answers, and they want them now with an insatiable demand for discussion of what comes next. Yet in the course of another entertaining hour yesterday, there was a sense that, ultimately, O'Neill will be considering a lot of the questions that have been thrown his way when the games with Latvia and the Poles are out of the way.


Tactical approach, squad selections, coaching dynamics and recruitment strategies are all up for review. For a man who has spent his life as a manager entirely in club football, it is quite a turnaround to be relishing the next international friendly date.

"They were the bane of my life," he admitted. "John O'Shea would come up to me at Sunderland and say, 'I think we've got another one' and I would say, 'When? Like Christmas Eve?' I mean, honestly, they just appeared out of the calendar.

"Now," he added with a smile, "I just think that they are the best thing ever."

He can't reinvent the wheel in the space of four days. Indeed, in time, he may find that it's impossible to make radical alterations to the modus operandi in the limited period of time with players that this brief offers.

The final days of Giovanni Trapattoni prompted a broad debate about style of play and what can be achieved with the group that O'Neill and Roy Keane oversaw for the first time yesterday, a debate which was given an outside perspective when Joachim Loew offered his view that the Irish DNA effectively makes a switch of manager irrelevant because the players will always operate in the same way.

In the course of a long response, O'Neill neither agreed or disagreed with the assessment of the German boss.

"I've got my own ideas on it," he said, "I think each nation has their own DNA and we have to work with that. I think he means that there's a 'get up at em' type attitude, but do I think Irish players are capable of expressing themselves? I would hope so.

"There are a number of ways of playing it. I don't want to tell you something here and then find out we're totally and utterly incapable of doing it. If that's the case, please don't let me make big promises.

"Eventually, we have certain players to work with. It's not as if we can buy six or seven by the time September comes. I was asked about implementing some kind of philosophy through the heart of it but, in that, you've got to have a little bit of flexibility. It's a long-winded way of me saying that I don't want to be inflexible on what we do and then find we're incapable of doing it."

Critics of O'Neill have argued that he is too conservative, a point he strongly contests. Speaking at length in Malahide's Grand Hotel, he detailed the variety of situations he has encountered through the course of his long career in football.

He referenced the contrast between the frequently one-dimensional approach of the Northern Ireland team he captained and the technically astute Nottingham Forest team which captured two European Cups, triumphing in the latter with a lone striker and a packed midfield.

"Brian Clough played with Garry Birtles on his own up front and he wasn't calling it anything novel at the time," said O'Neill, referencing that approach's current popularity. "People have different systems of play, I think what we'll try and do is find a system that suits the players."

Indeed, while cameras trained in on Keane, O'Neill casually chatted to some members of his squad about their preferences, just to gauge their opinion. The versatile Jon Walters, who was a spectator for most of training after a gruelling encounter on Sunday, came on to his radar.

"I asked him, if he had a free choice, what his best position was," said O'Neill, conscious that the striker is frequently used to fill a gap on the wing.

"If you've seven or eight players out of position, then you're going to be in a bit of trouble along the way. Now you might turn around this week and say on Friday or Tuesday that there's four out of position but what I'm saying is that everything is about the build-up to next September."

That extends to spreading the net wide. The name of Connor Wickham cropped up, the 20-year-old striker who has worked with both O'Neill and Keane and trailed off somewhat after looking like a world beater in his teens and earning a £8m switch from Ipswich to Sunderland. Wickham, who qualifies through his father but has represented England all the way up to U-21 level, is currently on loan at Sheffield Wednesday from the Black Cats. "I thought being a professional footballer was enough for Connor at that stage, he liked the lifestyle," mused O'Neill.

Whatever reservations he might have may be overruled by pragmatism. "I don't think I am in a position at this minute to turn down anything," he continued. "If someone tells me someone is available, particularly someone I have worked with before and might have a chance, then I would give it some consideration."

Trap had the same willingness to explore every avenue, even if his bottom line was to unearth individuals who slotted perfectly into his rigid game-plan. His successor is determined to find his own way, as opposed to being guided by anybody else's template.

Last month he called Roy Hodgson to congratulate him on reaching the World Cup, but he stopped short of asking for advice on the demands of this alternative working life for a manager.

"I've done it now," he asserted. "I've made this choice and I'm delighted with this choice. I obviously want to make it work and it would be great if I could but, at the end of the day, I made the decision and over the course of time I'll know what to expect."

For now, he's learning with the rest of us.

Roy Keane press conference,

Live, TV3, 2.30

Irish Independent

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