Monday 11 December 2017

Loyalty won't shape important decisions

Martin O'Neill has given encouragement to fringe men and sent a ruthless warning to his regulars

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Picture credit: David Maher / Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Picture credit: David Maher / Sportsfile

Dion Fanning

Martin O'Neill was in Dublin on Friday for routine business. He named an Irish squad for the friendlies against Switzerland and Slovakia, which contained most of the able-bodied Irish footballers currently playing in Britain. There were 40 men in the squad, but anybody who thinks this large panel is a sign of indecisiveness or demonstrates a lack of ruthlessness hasn't been paying attention.

Four years ago, Trapattoni saw the European Championships as a reward for the players who got Ireland to the competition. "Tomorrow we turn the page," he said before the game against Italy, even if, by that stage, the page was about to be crumpled and thrown frustratingly in the bin, scrawled with pleas saying, 'Help me! Help me'!

O'Neill has a different view of Ireland's footballers, or at least he doesn't see the whole thing as a damage limitation exercise before the damage has even been done. On Friday, he was asked how he would strike the balance between loyalty to the players who qualified for France and the need to bring the best possible squad to the tournament. He didn't sound like a man too concerned with finding that balance.

"I've been in management a fairly lengthy time and telling really good players their time is up has always been difficult. Telling average players their time is up was actually quite simple to me."

This was said with a smile, but nobody will doubt the truth in what he says. O'Neill says he will be loyal to those who got Ireland to France. Loyalty, he says, "is an important part of proceedings", but loyalty only gets you so far in football and that usually isn't far enough.

Most of the players who took part in qualifying will travel, not out of loyalty, but because they are the best players available to the manager. Little else concerns O'Neill and the coming games will provide some opportunity for those who want to make an impression.

O'Neill isn't claiming these decisions will be easy. "It will be difficult to leave them out because they want to play for their country. At club level, I don't think it would have caused me the same level of concern as it does with international players."

O'Neill made the point again about how much the Irish players want to play for Ireland, but if it is uncomfortable, he will still do it. "It will be difficult, especially if someone has played a part in getting us there."

He won't be interested in chemistry or squad dynamics. "I don't think I would want to fill my squad up with players who are good around the hotel," he said with a smile. "As Iniesta goes past someone, I won't be saying: 'Actually, he's very good around the hotel. He gets the drinks for everybody'."

Somebody like David McGoldrick might yet make a late run for the squad and if O'Neill feels he can improve things, he won't hesitate. O'Neill wasn't getting into specifics, but he said there has to be places available. Injuries and loss of form are the obvious reasons, but again O'Neill sees another possibility. "More to the point, other people could come in to great form and you think, 'Could he - even with less experience - bring some life to us?"

For those on the periphery, this is the encouragement they needed. For those who think they might be established, O'Neill was sending a warning.

Complacency has never been part of O'Neill or his teams at their best. If he detects it, he tends to act swiftly and Ireland are likely to be more alert than they were four years ago for many reasons.

He reflected on his own experiences when Brian Clough left him out of the European Cup final team in 1979. Ireland's manager always lightens up when he considers the history of football. He was amazed to hear that Jack Charlton brought seven forwards to Italia 90, and took great delight in Alfredo Di Stefano's line after the Egypt game in 1990 that Ireland had "played one-twos with the angels".

He enjoys that side of football, but in his dismissal of Damien Delaney's chances, he showed his steel again. Later, when sitting with Sunday journalists, he asked if someone could remind him if Delaney had played competitively for Ireland. He was told he had - once - and the answer appeared satisfactory.

If there is anything unsatisfactory about his contract situation, O'Neill wasn't saying. The manager said he is prepared to go into the tournament without a contract extension. It is expected that talks are planned for the build-up to this month's friendlies, but O'Neill says he has always been relaxed about contracts, pointing out that he signed five one-year deals under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, "always thinking that life would be better . . . it never was".

O'Neill says it is the same with management. "If my health stays up, I'll do something. It's not a problem. I'll exist."

Ireland might think that life would be better with a new manager if things went wrong in France, but it rarely is.

O'Neill would be in demand if Ireland have a successful tournament, but that is not the primary reason his contract should be extended. Irish football needs to lose the idea that there is a saviour out there who can manage the international team and take away the country's problems. The FAI should be eager to close a deal. Sticking with the man who achieved qualification would be one way of breaking away from bad habits and would, in the event of failure, force people into considering the truth of Ireland's situation regarding young players.

Jack Byrne and Preston's Alan Browne will be invited to train with the senior squad when under 21 commitments allow. Byrne was praised by O'Neill for going on loan to Cambuur, where he has impressed recently.

"I think he felt going out on loan - I haven't spoken to him about this at all - but I think he felt, 'What use is the academy to me? Better me going out and playing for a first team and for a cause and the game being important'. That's what I applaud more than anything else."

O'Neill's admiration for Byrne dovetails with his concerns about the academies in England, which he believes are producing players who don't have much interest in playing.

"In my experience, it is absolutely that, they are mollycoddled," he said. "I can understand this extension of under 18, 19, 21 leagues, but a player at 20 years of age will think, 'I've got another year in the under 21s'. In my time in the game, if you were 20 years of age and you weren't playing first division football reasonably regularly, you'd have to really consider if this was the career for you."

O'Neill's view echoes that of coaches who feel players are losing competitiveness by earning big money in a less than ferocious environment. "I would have serious doubts about it," he said of the academies, but he added that he would never discourage any Irish player from going to a club at a young age. They would, he said, need to be realistic about their chances and if they're not, it will quickly become clear.

"It won't take you too long before you waken up to reality. If some young kid is going over at 16, there must be a great deal of excitement and I wouldn't do anything to prevent that. But I think he should be given some indication of what he has to do to become a professional footballer. You're in an academy for three years and immediately you start to think, 'I'm OK'. What happens is that next year three of the 17-year-olds are better than you. Next thing you're passed out of it. If you tell me the alternative of staying here and playing League of Ireland football is the answer, I don't mind that at all, but I think the whole essence of the academies has to be looked into."

Byrne's attitude might impress when he trains with the squad. "He has to be one for the future. If he comes in and displays great talent and is better than two or three of the lads I have in there, it'd be foolish of me not to think about him, but I don't envisage that happening immediately."

O'Neill has always placed immediate success first and that won't change, but the next six months will be important for Irish football and not just because the European Championships will take place. The World Cup campaign may provide another reminder of Ireland's limited resources.

By the end of this month, things will have become a little less routine as the tournament draws closer. Last week, the manager provided some reminders of what's at stake, how it would be foolish to take him for granted and why complacency will never survive in a world where it is better to live than merely exist.

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