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James Lawton: Martin O'Neill a beacon of hope in the shadow of Joe Schmidt

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What chance has Ireland of another heroic coaching figure standing beside the Kiwi master of rugby precision, Joe Schmidt, come Sunday night?

What chance has Ireland of another heroic coaching figure standing beside the Kiwi master of rugby precision, Joe Schmidt, come Sunday night?

SPORTSFILE

What chance has Ireland of another heroic coaching figure standing beside the Kiwi master of rugby precision, Joe Schmidt, come Sunday night?

What chance has Ireland of another heroic coaching figure standing beside the Kiwi master of rugby precision, Joe Schmidt, come Sunday night?

It may not be high - last weekend's Six Nations glory was, after all, as brilliantly orchestrated as an epic, perfectly plotted thriller - but there is something in the blood and the thinking of Martin O'Neill that encourages the idea that he might just find a way.

Certainly it doesn't help that European Championship Group D leaders Poland have rediscovered some of the touch and the spirit that once made them such a formidable force in the upper levels of international football.

At the very least, they will belong on another competitive level than the Scottish XV which yielded so meekly at Murrayfield.

Yet, if O'Neill's team is in more rarefied company than Schmidt's at a pivotal point of a major challenge, if his players have much less reason to believe in their own powers in a season of some strain on the physical and psychological resources required to combat the threat of relegation, we can be sure they will not lack for intelligently pitched motivation.

O'Neill has proved himself in many different football situations and his most striking asset has already been seen to good effect in the days since he took over from the busted doyen of coaching Giovanni Trapattoni.

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Martin O'Neill

Martin O'Neill

SPORTSFILE

Martin O'Neill

In the end, Trap was overwhelmed by the technical limitations of his charges. He stood on the touchline with the expression of a man who had reached the limits of his ingenuity.

What can I do, he seemed to be saying with the shrug of a man resigned to his fate.

Such resignation is plainly not part of O'Neill's nature - at least not in the heat of action.

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What can he do? He can make the best of whatever situation he finds himself in and will not leave it easily, not when there is a chance that something of value can be achieved.

This week he has recognised his most important task. It has been the attempt to separate such players as John O'Shea of Sunderland and Ciaran Clark of Aston Villa and Everton duo Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy from the weight of their battles in the Premier League.

"For a few days they are apart from such pressure," he said. "Now they can operate in another situation and not be weighed down by fears that can grow over the weeks.

"Some players are coming in with absolutely fine form, others have had their trials and tribulations at club level. This is a bit of a concern but I think 'Just put that to one side and think of where we are now for a few days. If you are in great form, then fantastic. If not, then don't worry.'

"I think the most important thing for us (after losing to Scotland) is to be a bit flexible and make sure we all know what we are doing."

O'Neill plainly, has been under no illusions about this ever since he picked up the challenge from Trap - and noted the high point the old maestro achieved when he carried the team so close to qualification for the 2010 World Cup.

The appalling denouement of that drive was resurrected, quite outrageously, by Thierry Henry the other day when he complained about over-reaction to his dire piece of cheating.

Henry argued that he hadn't killed anyone, but of course there was a degree of homicide involved. It was in the random aiding and abetting of the killing of fair play - and the aspirations of a team which had brilliantly over-achieved.

Can O'Neill, who learned so much at the knee of Brian Clough, conjure such heightened performance on Sunday?

Perhaps, but if he fails it will not be at the cost of the idea that the FAI chose wisely when they replaced one of the most decorated coaches in the history of the game.

O'Neill's task was to make the best of the challenge of operating with extremely limited resources. He had to mix discipline with cajoling, even maybe a degree of smoke and mirrors.

He handled the turmoil brought by Roy Keane with an even-headed assurance, allowing the revolving and ultimately wearing drama, with an easy, philosophical touch.

Now he is somewhat overshadowed again, this time by the exhilarating triumphs of his rugby counterpart.

Again, though, the reaction has displayed a consistent awareness of his situation.

He may hope for something from the last of the ambitions of a Robbie Keane apparently inspired and refreshed by the less demanding requirements of the Major Soccer League - and also the potentially significant input of the knowing Shay Given.

Above all, though, he will rely on his instincts and judgment under pressure. He is well schooled in such matters and, as his players seek to punch more than their collective weight, the football nation can have few worries about the man in charge of their corner.

Irish Independent