Friday 19 January 2018

James Lawton: Act of defiance allows O'Neill to keep sceptics at arm's length

O’Neill was accused of killing caution earlier in the campaign
O’Neill was accused of killing caution earlier in the campaign
James Lawton

James Lawton

It was always going to be a desultory lynching party because even if Martin O'Neill was deemed by his critics to be old hat, and his sidekick Roy Keane perhaps relying too much on time-expired hauteur, no-one could say they hadn't been dealt some extremely slender cards.

However, you have no place in any kind of poker game if you don't have a degree of nerve and natural-born conviction and these are qualities that often come to the fore the closer you get to the edge. So, of course, when Shane Long slapped down his royal flush and O'Neill took a swig of water that must have tasted like the most expensive Cristal, there was more than a lucky hand to celebrate so wildly.

There was a wonderful re-statement of the value of leadership and, yes, knowledge and understanding of the men sent out to beat the world champions Germany.

Long's appearance in the 65th minute was part of that kind of calculation that is indeed sharpened in extreme situations and the most unpromising odds. It was part of O'Neill's appeal to the combative nature of an individual player of considerable self-belief, his reckoning on when to make the big push that might just rattle a team only recently getting round to the idea that they are indeed worthy holders of their nation's fourth World Cup.

It wasn't some cerebral master plan, a flight of tactical genius. It was a gut play, a riding of instinct, and then when the impact of it became so evident in the Aviva Stadium, when the superior skills of such as Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller was suddenly, plainly loaded with pressure, you could begin to grasp that O'Neill and Keane had maybe fashioned something more than a hugely enhanced chance of qualifying for the European Championships.


They had created, in the most unlikely circumstances and against what so recently was a growing tide of scepticism, a link with the best of their nation's football past.

There was a swagger about Long's goal that recalled the explosion of possibilities that came under the reign of Jack Charlton, a sighting of new horizons. Big Jack had much richer resources, no doubt, but his gift was to implant the idea that anything was possible and who could say that O'Neill and Keane hadn't touched similar terrain this week.

O'Neill was accused of killing caution earlier in the campaign, Keane of failing to understand the gap that so often occurs between the most fervent ambition and the ability to fulfill it, but when you thought about it in this moment of triumph it was not so hard to acknowledge the meaning of both football men.

As Ireland go to Warsaw with everything to play for, they will no doubt do so without illusions of being a new-made force. They will be what they are, which is to say a group of players largely drawn from the fringes of English football's top flight and the Championship, but then again they are surely infused with new levels of pride and awareness of what might they might just make happen.

This, surely, is the gift of the kind of background O'Neill and Keane have brought to their challenge. The great old guru Giovanni Trapattoni also brought his own considerable strength to the job. He was tough and practical and unyielding in his approach for the longest time and if Thierry Henry hadn't performed his supreme act of cynicism in Paris, who knows, he might have led Ireland to the 2010 World Cup finals.

But then when he worked the trick two years later in the European Championships, it turned out to be nothing so much as a desperately and ultimately sad investigation into the limits of the nation's football strength.

Ireland didn't suffer a merely failed tournament campaign but a systematic exploration of their weakness by Croatia, Spain and Italy and the point here is that it is difficult to imagine either O'Neill or Keane displaying the face of defeat presented to the world by the veteran Italian.

Trapattoni's face said, "What can I do? How can I make these players perform adequately at this level?" He made the posture of despair. It was the announcement of the end of a road, an onset of reality, but that isn't in the nature of either O'Neill or Keane. If they know that in some ways they are outgunned, they will endeavour to beat the bullet.

It was clinching evidence that the FAI, for all their other miscalculations, made the soundest of investments in the pedigrees of O'Neill, the disciple of the incisively, at times uniquely, brilliant Brian Clough, and Keane, perhaps the ultimate example of a professional sportsman driven by the demons of competitive fire. Certainly these were elements in the defeat of Germany - one of the landmarks of Irish football surely and arguably the best result since Keane, at much less than full fitness, inspired the defeat of Holland in 2002.

When you measure the resources on which this latest triumph was based, consider the force of the German tradition, there is once again the sense of an over-arching call again on that aching need to attend to the development of Irish football. If such a triumph can be born in such circumstances, against such a daunting imbalance of available talent, what might be achieved with superior development?

This is a prize that reaches beyond the possibility of a place in the finals in France next summer and it is one that was made to appear more accessible in that moment Long collected the long hiked ball of West Ham's second-string 'keeper Darren Randolph and drove it past the world's most celebrated guardian, Manuel Neuer.

It wasn't so much a goal as an act of the most wilful defiance - and a state of mind which Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane have surely won the right to continue to encourage for quite some time.

Irish Independent

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