Sunday 21 January 2018

Brian Kerr: O’Neill can’t afford to arrive late to party

Old-school approach works and management team have had long enough to iron out all the little details - the time to deliver is now

Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have had plenty of time to iron out the little details for the
European Championships Picture: AFP/Getty
Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have had plenty of time to iron out the little details for the European Championships Picture: AFP/Getty
O’Neill is embraced by Neil Lennon after Celtic’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in 2004 and Lennon believes the Ireland manager can pull a rabbit out of his hat in France Picture Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

Neil Lennon starts to speak and the crowd falls silent. There must be about a thousand of them here, many of them supping pints listening to what Neil, Keith Andrews, Kevin Moran, Graeme Souness and myself have to say about the Euros.

Outside it's bright and sunny after one of the warmest days of the year and inside, in this Vicar Street venue, there's a giddy mood among the audience, fuelled no doubt by alcohol but also by the way Neil and Graeme had regaled them with stories about life inside the dressing room, each yarn laced with humour.

But now it's somewhat different. The mood is still light but the subject has turned serious. Earlier that day Roy Keane tore into Aiden McGeady and Jeff Hendrick and Daryl Murphy at a press conference and the issue of Martin O'Neill's management crept into the discussion.

So Neil speaks up. Now bear in mind what Martin did for Neil's career, taking him from Crewe to Leicester when he was 24 and at a time when he could justifiably have been wondering if he'd ever get the break his talent deserved.

Under Martin, he did get that break, reaching the Premier League first, then three Wembley Cup finals, two of which he won, before signing for Celtic, the club he supported as a boy. And we all know what happened there - the five league titles, four Scottish Cups and that unforgettable run to the 2003 UEFA Cup final.


So it's no surprise to hear him speak warmly and respectfully of Martin, a friend as well as a mentor. Yet when he starts to give an insight into his old manager's methods that the element of shock comes.

"This time 20 years ago," Neil says, "we were going into the Premier League with Leicester. Most of our squad had never played there before. So we were nervous.

"All through pre-season we have been playing the likes of Port Vale, Wigan, Scunthorpe, operating off a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formation. Then, day one of the season, we head to Sunderland and the nerves kick in. We had travelled up the day before. No conversation. No tactics. As was Martin's wont then.

"So on the morning of our first Premier League game, we all go for a walk in our nice new tracksuits, thinking we're the bee's knees, and thinking we'll be playing the standard 4-4-2 in our opening Premier League game. And then he reads out the team, addressing us all by our second names. 'Keller; Walsh, Prior, Taggart; Izzet, Lennon, Parker, Savage, Guppy; Claridge, Heskey' - before saying, 'We're going 3-5-2, get on with it. I trust you. You trust me. Just go out there and do it'." Now the thing is that Leicester did do it.

They punched way above their weight under O'Neill, ending a 33-year wait for a major trophy, getting them into Europe for the first time since 1961.

Next he went to Celtic, who'd been in Rangers' shadow for nine of the previous 10 seasons. That changed under O'Neill. As did Celtic's results in Europe. Ajax, Liverpool, Juventus, Barcelona and plenty more were beaten. The UEFA Cup final was reached. It's clear he has been successful but it is an indefinable quality which has brought about that success.

I've never been in his dressing room to see how he does it but Neil has - on nearly 400 occasions - and it is obvious he has been inspired by him.

"Look," said Neil, "he trusts his players. Mentally he got us right. Think about it this way. Ten years I worked under him. We never once practised a corner. Now if you go back over all his games when he was in charge of Leicester and Celtic, the amount of goals we scored from corners and free-kicks, was unbelievable. But we never practised them.

"One day we were going to Old Trafford and I said, 'Gaffer, why do we not practise corners and free-kicks?' And he replied: 'Lenny, the fact is that you are the one who takes our corners. We're playing Manchester United. We might get only one corner in the entire game, and knowing you, you'll f*** it up'.

"And that was that. He put me in my place but he also made his point - that he trusts his players. He is a manager who will pull rabbits out of hats for Ireland in this tournament."

And we hope he will do. And you hope what happened in qualification - when we conceded from corners against the Scots in Glasgow and the Poles in Warsaw - is not repeated against the Swedes.

We have to be well-drilled, prepared for every eventuality.

Will we be? The answer is we should because O'Neill and Keane have had long enough to sort out all the little details - to borrow one of Trap's phrases. They have had long enough to get their message across. Have there been detailed tactical sessions conducted with the opposition in mind, though? Have game-plans been developed, shined and polished?

I fully believe in O'Neill's judgement of a player, his capacity to generate good morale in the squad, to pick fellas in the right position, to get the players to do the simple, but utterly vital stuff, like tackling hard and tracking back when we don't have the ball.


Old-school methods still have a place in the modern game. Yet, I'd be interested to know what his thoughts are on sports science, on the potential edge you can get from this area.

Are he and Roy Keane dismissive of that part of the game or do they embrace it? The Swedes certainly do. Paul Balsom, who is head of sports science and performance analysis at Leicester City, also works as an assistant to Erik Hamren, the Swedish coach. So they will be up to speed in this department.

Let no one doubt, though, that tactically O'Neill has kept pace with the game's changing trends. He quickly realised - after the long series of friendlies which followed his appointment and preceded the start of this European qualification campaign - that you can no longer get away with playing a 4-4-2 system that accommodates Robbie Keane and two wingers.

Throughout the campaign, he never shied away from experimenting in his search for the right balance and the right system.

Yet along the way, in the first half of some of Ireland's qualifiers, even in the second leg against Bosnia, I saw signs of players not being sure of where to be positioned at certain times.

The game at home to Germany is the one that stands out. We started with a narrow midfield containing McCarthy, Hendrick, Brady and Hoolahan, with Murphy and Walters up front, essentially a 4-4-2 formation.

Yet as the Germans continued to build from the back, Jonas Hector, the German left-back, kept being handed too much space to press forward and cause Ireland problems with the players seemingly unaware of whose responsibility it was to close him down.

Eventually, between them, Hoolahan and Walters spotted the problem and sorted it out, ultimately ending up playing as wide defenders in a 4-5-1 framework. Could it not have been sorted out in advance, though? By sticking to a policy of naming his team late, are players fully briefed on what their jobs are?

We will have a better idea after Monday's game.

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