Tuesday 24 September 2019

Martin O'Neill happy to take the Manchester United route to glory

Late goal habit reminds proud O'Neill of Manchester United treble winners

Martin O’Neill acknowledges the crowd at the Aviva Stadium
Martin O’Neill acknowledges the crowd at the Aviva Stadium
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It is two years since Martin O'Neill's opening night at the Aviva Stadium, an occasion where he sensed that the football public desperately wanted something to cling on to.

The Ireland manager is proud that his team have delivered on that expectation, even if they had to endure a couple of rough evenings along the way.

O'Neill was keen to spend Monday night with staff and players as well as friends and family so he didn't hang around to properly reflect on the journey that now has France as the next destination.

After taking time to enjoy the aftermath, he spoke to Newstalk's 'Off The Ball' last night about the plan which has eventually come together.

His basic point was that the coherent performances this autumn were a product of a learning process that can be traced back to a series of friendlies in his bedding-in period where results pricked some of the enthusiasm that was a feature of the visit of Latvia just after the dream team of O'Neill and Roy Keane was unveiled.

Following that stroll in the park, Ireland went seven games without a win.

"When I took over, it was supposedly the dawn of a new era," said O'Neill. "The atmosphere that night, you had a feeling that the crowd were looking for something again.

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"It was amazing to find that these friendly games, people were making vast judgements. For us to go and play proper friendly matches last summer ahead of teams that were playing in the World Cup, like Italy and Costa Rica and Portugal, it was important.

"I had midfield players at full-back and, eventually, it stands you in good stead because when we played Germany we had David Meyler at full-back. I felt when we lost a couple of friendlies, it seemed like the end of the world in the media. That wasn't the case at all. Ultimately, we just wanted to find out about players at international level."

From there, it was a slow ride to the euphoria of this week. In another interview, O'Neill quipped that there was an element of torture about the process.

The key, he says, was responding to the setbacks in the right way. He had to do that himself after the draw in Nice, where his gut reaction that a pool with Germany, Poland and Scotland was an awful outcome compared to the alternatives that were available elsewhere. "It put me on the back foot for around 20 minutes and then you decide, ok, let's get on with this and see what we can do."

The loss to Scotland in Parkhead and the deflation following the draw in Dublin were points where he felt that some of the commentary on the team lost perspective, especially in the summer.

"People were saying it was all over," he said. "And it wasn't just blind bravado from me saying it wasn't all over. I've been involved in these tournaments as a player and a manager, we won a big game in Georgia, the opening game, and Scotland still had to go there. It probably meant, I accept this, that we had to get a big result at home to Germany or away to Poland to still stay in the competition. I thought if we could get through Gibraltar and Georgia it would be a big night against the Germans and so it proved."

There may have been an element of good fortune about that outcome, but Ireland earned it and O'Neill feels that the proliferation of late goals across the campaign is more than just a coincidence. He observes that some great sides, including one dominated by his current assistant Roy Keane, were hailed for doing exactly the same thing.

"Mostly, you have to compete strongly and have heart and soul in it and that's what pleased me," he asserted. "Some people said, 'Oh you scored some late goals' as if it was a criticism, but Manchester United made it a habit for over a decade and it became part of their make-up. For us to score late goals in matches, it shows something. I think as the competition reached crisis point, the players rose to what the occasions demanded of them."

In an interview where the 63-year-old's satisfaction at his team's exploits could be deduced from the tone of his voice, he was still conscious to strike the right note, especially when talking about what came before.

He has experience at club level of managers - with Paolo Di Canio at Sunderland the prime example - succeeding him in a position and then speaking in unkind terms about the work of the old regime.

The excitement ahead of that Latvia clash contrasted from the gloom that hung over from Euro 2012 into a lethargic World Cup campaign and O'Neill is conscious that the Polish adventure was souring. But having gotten over the line for the expanded tournament, he stresses that he understands the challenges that Giovanni Trapattoni faced.

He brought that topic up himself when pressed on the initial attraction of the Irish job and the hype that comes with it which he didn't find too daunting given past experience at Celtic.

"In my time, crowds averaged 60,000, and we had 55,000 season-ticket holders - a lot from Ireland - and I never felt ill at ease in that sense. But, regardless of the hype, for want of a better word, when you start something, you need to have an end product or else it becomes a bit useless.

"A bit like a manager stepping into a job, whether it be at club level, and saying he wants to do this and do that and criticise everything that happened behind him and then five or six weeks in, he's fallen on his sword.

"I never felt like that. I thought Mr Trapattoni had done exceptionally well, he qualified for the Euros, a great achievement, and things didn't go so well for one reason or another."

O'Neill will now have to plan towards avoiding a repeat and, like Keane on Tuesday, ran through some of the key headings. In an ideal world, he would love his side to have more courage on the ball, and be able to choose from a squad packed with club regulars. Darron Gibson and Aiden McGeady were again name-checked as players who need to get games. He will also look to give uncapped members on the periphery an opportunity in March.

On paper, the Switzerland visit does not scream glamour. But, similar to the Latvian introduction, it's an occasion that every player will want to be a part of.

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