Friday 23 March 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Martin O'Neill will always have reason to believe in miracles

Even if Saturday’s draw is unkind to Ireland, the team is harder to beat under Martin O’Neill and the overall mindset looks healthier
Even if Saturday’s draw is unkind to Ireland, the team is harder to beat under Martin O’Neill and the overall mindset looks healthier
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

This time next week, many Ireland fans will have flights booked and hastily-devised itineraries taking shape. Saturday's Euro 2016 draw in Paris will decide thousands of summer holidays and begin a lengthy period of anticipation and daydreaming.

Martin O'Neill will plan for a tournament as a manager rather than a pundit, a welcome switch from his brief at Brazil 2014. You might remember the highlight of his contribution to ITV's coverage, a wonderful put-down of Fabio Cannavaro and Patrick Vieira that followed a misjudged quip from Adrian Chiles who told the Derryman that he could imagine him flinching while wearing his glasses in a defensive wall.

"Well that's very nice of you to say, but I actually didn't wear glasses when I was playing" responded O'Neill, mastering a cheery form of sarcasm as he turned to address his younger panellists. "I did actually play the game. Fabio wasn't terribly sure that I did. Despite the fact there's two World Cup winners here, when it comes to the Champions League, which used to be the European Cup, I've won two of them. I'd like to know how many you two have won?" Of course, he already knew that the answer was zero.

The clip features in the closing montage to 'I Believe In Miracles', the new film which chronicles the extraordinary rise of Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest from Second Division also-rans to English champions and two time European Cup winners in the space of four giddy seasons.

O'Neill's pointed suggestion that people have forgotten what that group achieved sits perfectly with a theme that runs through a slick Jonny Owen production peppered with Clough braggadocio that has been released in tandem with a book of the same title by the Guardian's Daniel Taylor which adds real depth and context.

The Ireland manager is used to being described as a Clough disciple and his charismatic boss would certainly have approved of that ITV vignette; a good number of the movie highlights are from his own stints in punditry. But the entertaining book - a must for the Christmas list - stresses that they had a complicated relationship.

O'Neill was out of favour when the huge personality swept in the door in 1975 and is proud of the fact that he was one of the five survivors to last the course as Clough and sidekick Peter Taylor brought in a motley crew of old timers and questionable characters that were moulded into an unstoppable force.

The one-time law student was nicknamed 'Squire' by colleagues because of his education. Clough was unimpressed, and called him Clever Bollocks . "You may have A-Levels," he said, "But you're thick as a footballer."

With star man John Robertson given free rein on the left, O'Neill was tasked with doing the running on the other side and was always made to feel he was vulnerable. He admits that he was 'always looking over his shoulder.' On one occasion, the manager stopped a training session because he felt that O'Neill was in a sulk and challenged him to explain the reason. "I want to know why I'm the second team," said the player. "I can answer that," Clough replied, "Because you're too good for the third team."

Indeed, the Northern Irish international was benched for the maiden European Cup final win over Malmo in 1979 and was nearly sold to Coventry before making up for the disappointment by featuring against Hamburg a year later.

Still, while his idiosyncratic boss riled him, his successful approach was always going to leave an imprint in the long run.

You sometimes get the sense that O'Neill feels that the parallels are overplayed, particularly when it comes to descriptions of his hands-off approach on the training ground. The interaction levels in the Irish gig are a different animal from a club role but it's clear that the 63-year-old took on board Clough's assertion that relaxing and recharging batteries at the right time can be important as match preparation.

His old gaffer did things to extremes, and actively encouraged breaks during the season. When he learned that Frank Clark, a future Forest boss, had gone for a jog when the players were given a few days off, the left back was brought in and admonished.

It would never be allowed happen today, in an era where a tame Christmas party is major news, but for the bigger occasions Clough felt that pre-game drinking could free the mind of tension.  Take, for example, the instruction to get stuck into bottles of wine at lunchtime to aid sleep in the hours before a crunch meeting with Liverpool or a team outing for a few beers in Amsterdam's red light district on the eve of a European Cup semi-final with Ajax.

"It's five past ten," said O'Neill, "All the Ajax players will be in bed now."

"Aye," replied Clough, "But none of them will be getting any sleep."  The end result justified the means.

Before the showdown with Hamburg, Forest decamped to Spain for a week of socialising. "Soaking up the sunshine and San Miguels in Majorca was the best preparation any team underwent prior to a European Cup final," claimed Clough.

O'Neill won't be pouring out Chablis on matchday or bringing the boys on a sun holiday in Spain, but it's certain that the lead in to the Euros will be a world away from Giovanni Trapattoni's intensive Poland preparations that were likened to a 'prison camp' by Jonathan Walters last week.

The Italian's intensive routine had its benefits for short windows, but the absence of flexibility in the longest gathering backfired . He feared variety, while his successor works off an instinct that keeps players guessing.

His preference for leaving it late to reveal team selections raised eyebrows in the first half of the campaign but as his favoured side began to take shape in the autumn, it looked as though he had the balance right. Certainly, in the play-off decider, Ireland were sharper in every department. On the day of the second leg, he cancelled the regular team meeting and allowed players to gear up in their own way.

Hindsight always judges winning decisions favourably but, in his pomp, Clough succeeded in creating a winning environment. There will never be a comparable story to Forest in English football again. Romance has a ceiling now; foreign investment is the driver for seismic change. In the international sphere, there remains a chance that a motivated tight knit group can dramatically upset the odds. Costa Rica were a case study in Brazil.

The Euro 2012 draw turned out to be a disaster for Ireland, particularly with a manager who ultimately felt that he had to devise a plan which compensated for his players' limitations.

O'Neill has made this side hard to beat but, if Saturday's rolling of the drum is equally unkind, there is reason to believe that the mindset will be healthier. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Ireland's long wait for a major scalp ended under his watch. The courageous defeat of Germany demonstrated that miracles do happen. O'Neill didn't need to be told.

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