Saturday 20 January 2018

Comment: Is the O'Neill-Keane coaching ticket one that does a little less than we expect?

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane, right, during squad training. Republic of Ireland Squad Training, FAI National Training Centre, National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane, right, during squad training. Republic of Ireland Squad Training, FAI National Training Centre, National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

“We have a manager who gives the players freedom to express themselves and work out a game for themselves in many ways.”

The words of Republic of Ireland striker Kevin Doyle in his Sunday World column last weekend offered an insight into the current set-up being overseen by the Irish management team of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane in France, yet you do not have to peel too far under the surface to appreciate the observation is more than a little concerning.

The affable Doyle is not the type to be overly critical of an Ireland manager or his assistant Keane mid-way through a major tournament, but he will not have been alone in voicing a suggestion that has been lost amid the idea that Ireland are somehow lucky to be blessed by the presence of O’Neill and Keane as their figureheads.

Doyle’s comment can only be viewed as a suggestion that pre-match planning for huge games like tonight’s Euro 2016 showdown against Italy in Lille would have been less than detailed for a squad still reeling from Saturday’s 3-0 defeat against Belgium.

Are the Ireland players given implicit instructions of what to do if they take a lead? Do O’Neill and Keane conduct pre and post match video analysis sessions with their players as they look to plot steps forward? Or is this a high profile management duo that do a little less than we might expect with a team carrying the hopes of a nation at Euro 2016?

If the words of former O’Neill pupil Neil Lennon are a gauge, it would suggest this is a manager who doesn’t tend to put too much time into his pre-game analysis.

“I worked with Martin O’Neill for 10 years, never practised a corner at Leicester City or Celtic,” reflected Lennon earlier this month.

“Yet if you go back over all his games, the amount of goals we scored from corners and free-kicks was unbelievable. We’re going to Old Trafford one day and I said; ‘Gaffer, why do we not practise corners and free-kicks?’ He said: ‘Lenny, you take corners don’t you?’ I said ‘Yeah’. He said ‘we may get one corner at Old Trafford, and knowing you, you’ll f*** it up!”

It is a relaxed approach that has tended to work for O’Neill throughout his lengthy management career, yet it remains to be seen whether such methods can be successful at the highest levels of international football.

“O’Neill does not send his players onto the field with a load of instructions and messages and while having a clear mind is helpful in some ways, it doesn’t always work,” continued Doyle, who would have been the second highest goal scoring on the international stage if he was included in the final 23-man squad for Euro 2016.

“It’s a method that has brought him success in the past, but you need everything to go your way to get results against top class opponents if you are playing on the back foot for 90 minutes and it frustrates me when I see us playing like we did (against Belgium).”

The hugely encouraging performance of turned in by O’Neill’s side in their opening Euro 2016 game against Sweden last week was replaced by a shambolic effort against Belgium, with the gulf in class between the two sides accentuated by the lack of direction shown by the players wearing white shirts in Bordeaux.

Michael O’Neill’s limited Northern Ireland side have highlighted what is possible on the Euro 2016 stage if studious planning is fused with a battling desire to win and while no-one can fault the Ireland players for their effort at Euro 2016 so far, questions may soon be asked about the balance of a side that has lacked direction from its chief decision makers.

Ireland’s eagerness to sink back into their shell after taking a lead against Sweden invited the opposition to draw level, while the tactics deployed in the Belgium game was as basic as they come.

As the midfield was being bypassed against Belgium, why not throw Daryl Murphy on to support the isolated Shane Long in a bid to create some kind of attacking threat? Instead, O’Neill’s substitutions were predictably ineffective.

Replacing Long with Robbie Keane was a late change that appeared to be sentimental rather than tactical, while the move to take off Wes Hoolahan and throw his favourite son Aiden McGeady into the fray late on was uninspired.

As for assistant boss Keane, you wonder whether he is the type to provide a buffer between the manager and players or whether his chief role in the set-up is be the ‘iconic figure’ O’Neill often mentions, while also relieving the main man of some of his media duties with his bizarrely regular press conferences.

A detailed post mortem on the role of O’Neill and Keane in Ireland’s Euro 2016 adventure can be carried out after the Italy game, but it can only be hoped that these words from Doyle are relayed to the players via the management team ahead of this nation’s most significant match in 14 years in Lille tonight.

“Hard work, effort and passion can only take you so far in this game and it frustrates me that Ireland fail to show their true potential on such a big stage,” added the Colorado Rapid striker.

“If you watched the game against Belgium, you would have been under the impression that one team was three or four steps ahead of the other, but I don’t think it needs to be like that.

“We can do much better than we managed against Belgium and I wonder why we don’t manage to perform to the level we are capable of in such a big game. I have played with guys like Wes Hoolahan, Glenn Whelan, Robbie Brady and Shane Long for many years and they are quality players.

“If you see the training sessions and five a side matches we have in Ireland get togethers, you would appreciate the quality we have in the group representing our country. We can play and pass the ball as good as anyone. Hopefully they believe that and we have a big performance in us for the Italy game.”

We can all echo those sentiments.

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