Thursday 12 December 2019

'There is no point in going there unless we can compete' - Martin O'Neill

Martin O’Neill (right) is all alone with his thoughts as Brian Clough enjoys a bit of banter with some of the other Nottingham Forest players in their dressing room in January, 1975. Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Martin O’Neill (right) is all alone with his thoughts as Brian Clough enjoys a bit of banter with some of the other Nottingham Forest players in their dressing room in January, 1975. Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Luke Edwards

Martin O'Neill is restless ahead of the Republic of Ireland's European Championship finals campaign.

There is no sense of satisfaction at qualifying, no pats on the back for himself or his assistant Roy Keane. They have not even signed the new contracts offered as a reward for getting to France. O'Neill expects and wants more.

Then again, he is always restless; a man who has always felt as though he has a point to prove but who will never entirely believe he has proved it.

When we meet over breakfast, there is a constant theme to his answers. What is the point of qualifying for a tournament if you do not compete when you get there?

First as a player, then as a manager, O'Neill is constantly striving, reaching, defying.

"I honestly don't think this is a momentous moment, not getting to France," O'Neill says, leaning in, as the caffeine from his fourth cup of tea goes to work.

"It's great to qualify and you might think the next month is going to be great, but I've not thought about it like that. You think, 'I've made it, now I've got to worry about it.'

"We've got a tough group - Sweden, Italy, Belgium - but I don't feel as though this has been completed.

"You're going into games where the opposition are strong, but nothing is insurmountable. You have to expect more of yourself, you have to expect more of the team.


"I think there is decent belief in the camp, maybe even strong belief, that we can actually win these games.

"I don't want to go to the European Championship finals and not compete. There is no point in going there unless we can complete. That is the first thing, then you build as you go along.

"I played in a World Cup in 1982 with Northern Ireland and we beat the hosts Spain to reach the quarter-finals. It can be done."

Perhaps we should blame Brian Clough, O'Neill's manager at Nottingham Forest, for his restless nature.

Clough signed a student and part-time footballer from Lisburn Distillery and offered him a professional career.

He clearly rated him, yet Clough rarely praised O'Neill. He made the young Irishman with a clever tongue constantly believe he barely deserved a place in the side.

Clough knew what type of person he was. He guided O'Neill as a player and helped mould him as a manager - and it shows. "Even in my Forest days, I always felt I had a point to prove," O'Neill explains.

"I never received the same sort of praise as other players and if that was Clough's way of dealing with me, if he thought it was the best way, so be it.

"That's the way he got the best out of me. I just felt he could have given me a bit more praise along the way.

"His analysis of me, because I used to answer him back, was, 'I'll just give him some more stick'. As my old team-mates said, I probably deserved it.

"I remember one moment very well. We were coming back on the train from Hull. I used to wear the No 8 (shirt) before I got No 7 and I had a friend who worked for Radio Nottingham, Graham Richards, and Cloughy knew that.

"He said so Graham could hear, 'There is one thing wrong with this team - the No 8'. He knew Graham would come and tell me - and that was in the crappy Second Division days.

"But, then, in the European Cup final against Hamburg, he came in at half-time and we were hanging on for dear life.

"He said something about changing things round position-wise and I volunteered, 'I'll do it', and he said, 'No son, you stay where you are, because you're playing brilliantly'.

"For me, in a European final, what a lift it gave me. I had been on my knees and I went out there in the second half and we spent most of the game without the ball, but I felt great."

No matter what he achieves, O'Neill thinks he can do better. A man who has spent much of his career being cast as an underdog craves other roles but he will always make the best of what he has got.

"It has never fazed me being an underdog," he adds.

"I've always felt, no matter how much the odds have been stacked against me, I've always managed to bring them down as a manager.

"Regardless of what sort of side I've had, I've always expected to win games.

"Yes, Ireland were drawn in a tough qualifying group and we have a limited pool of Premier League players, but it has never fazed either Roy or myself."

At first glance, O'Neill, the 62-year-old Northern Irishman with an aloof public persona, a left-field sense of humour and an admirable track record as a manager, does not have much in common with 44-year-old Keane - the intense, intimidating former Manchester United captain from Cork, who rarely smiles in public and whose perceived arrogance and refusal to listen to advice was said to have been his downfall as a manager at Ipswich Town.

Then you remember that both these fascinating figures spent their formative football years as pupils of Clough.

His personality has rubbed off on both - as have his views on football. They are different in many ways, but in terms of how they approach football, they could be kin.

"He (Clough) would have been genuinely delighted to see us working together," O'Neill says, with a hint of uncharacteristic emotion in his voice.

"I don't think he would have been shocked. He knew enough about Roy Keane to throw him in at Forest straight away and not leave him out.

"Roy has been great. I actually think it was that evening after the Scotland game (1-1 draw in Dublin in June 2015) that the two of us grew even closer.

"We don't normally eat together, but after that game, when people were saying we wouldn't qualify, Roy and I were really tight.

"He was, like, 'This isn't over'. He'd been in that position countless times as a player, as a captain. He's won 19 trophies, he has had that his whole career.

"Roy looked at the fixture list and he said, 'We've got Gibraltar away, Georgia and Germany at home. We can win those, we can beat Poland away'. He was buoyant.


"His positivity, I recognised it, felt it. I never feel Roy is ever anything else.

"I don't think you can have the career he has had at Manchester United without being like that, the constant pressure, the demands placed on you.

"Of course, you can have moments of self-doubt, moments when you worry if you are looking at things correctly. Roy reminded me you cannot get too dispirited about it.

"Roy could not have had the career he has had without being so mentally strong. Neither could I."

Sweden, Italy and Belgium be warned. This is a partnership that, like Clough, will always feel a point needs to be proved.

You underestimate O'Neill's Ireland team at your peril. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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