Tuesday 22 May 2018

The other boss in town has a lighter touch too

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill before the game. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill before the game. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters
David Kelly

David Kelly

Just because certainty defines a man does not necessarily mean that they can escape doubt.

By this stage four years ago, Martin O'Neill's predecessor, a man who never masked his absolute certainty in all things, had already named the 23 men who would go into bat for him at the ill-fated European Championships.

It had been May 7 when he did so; for his final warm-up match, he named the same starting 11 that would also begin the opening pool game against Croatia.

Certainty coursed through Giovanni Trapattoni's every deed, it seemed, until he was gripped with crippling self-doubt when confronted by Kevin Foley's seeming audacity to prove his fitness during a warm-up camp.

Out went Foley; scattering his international hopes forever more; suddenly, where once there was certainty, anxiety reigned.

The tawdry history of Ireland's participation in Euro 2012 need not detain us here.

In contrast, his successor seems to convey the impression that he may still be scratching names on a piece of paper some minutes before the official UEFA deadline which expires at midnight, CET, on Tuesday evening.

Which is not to say that this man is weighed down by uncertainty; quite the opposite, in fact.

For his maiden assault in the international sphere, the Derryman has forged a necessary virtue whereby doubts have midwived an increasing certainty in what he is about.

Trapattoni was almost despotically disposed to outlining what his players could not do; O'Neill has generally been patient enough to give his charges the opportunity to do what they can.

Indeed, when Trapattoni unveiled his squad four years ago, his opening address invited all to his primary thesis: that everyone should understand the limitations of his players.


O'Neill may share a broadly similar philosophy; any manager must. But he sees the innate folly in publicising the fact.

Where Trapattoni preached rigidity, O'Neill has, belatedly it must be said, entertained a fluidity in his approach.

There is something to be said for both approaches of course; the difference is in the application of mood. The Italian's was ascetic, unwavering, dictatorial.

O'Neill is less didactic, flexible and much more open.

His, in short, is a lighter touch.

This Irish squad does not lack belief in its individual and collective ability but it would suffer were they to be undermined by the very force that is employed, handsomely, to harness that confidence.

Beating the reigning world champions here during the last qualifying campaign was undoubtedly a boon; a high watermark always denied Irish managers since last night's guests were humbled here in 2001.

The Dutch have become used to humility; a rare trait for a nation that has given us Louis van Gaal, the man whose response to adversity 13 years ago was to throw on two extra strikers and withdraw the two wingers who were supposed to supply them.

They did dovetail to reach the World Cup semi-final last time around but it was but a momentary reprieve for a nation and man whose influences once proved so seminal in this sport.

The Dutch are not alone in the contemporary game in becoming subsumed by a culture of complacency; a squad parading world-class talents that would make an Irish manager swoon failed to beat any of Iceland, Czech Republic or Turkey in their qualifying group.

They spent much of this game parading a new raft of prospective prodigies - Riechedly Bazoer, coveted by Chelsea, Vincent Janssen by Arsenal - and assumed that their easy control of possession granted them special status.

They were roundly disabused of the notion midway through the half but only when O'Neill conceded tactical defeat, sacrificing his rough diamond and encouraging David McGoldrick, a candidate for a coveted striking berth, to move deeper into midfield.


Until then, Ireland had barely strung three passes together; Shane Long touched the ball once and had an old war wound in his knee reopened for good measure.

Holland, like their glowing orange jerseys, looked languidly elegant but, like their erstwhile manager, were trading on mere reputation; they created nothing of substance.

The Dutch may have invented total football; it was Ireland who originally patented total commitment.

McGoldrick was not cowed by the tactical retreat bequeathed upon him; finding space in midfield, he cast a delightful 40-yarder wide to Seamus Coleman, who won the set-piece from which Ireland snaffled their lead.

Trapattoni would have ranted and raved on the sideline but denied his side an escape from their tactical straitjacket; O'Neill reacts.

O'Neill has already cut his cloth to get to where he is now; whether casting aside his habitual amour for wide men or embracing the need for a number ten to hold possession.

Without a Wes Hoolahan type, his diamond is largely ineffective and exposes wide defensive spaces. Like last night, not everything in the campaign to date has been pretty but never has it been deliberately so.

Doubt may have defined O'Neill's baby steps in international management but it has led to growing certainty in his methods.

Having the humility to seek as he finds is no bad thing.

Irish Independent

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