Wednesday 21 February 2018

Hits and myths mark new dawn

Martin O'Neill knows his mind and what he wants from his teams, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

'There's no point in opening up my whole life in a fortnight," Martin O'Neill said on Tuesday night. There was an intensity to O'Neill's first two weeks in the job which almost concealed the reality that once the team returned to Dublin, the manager was facing into a long stretch which would require him to find a different way of being a football manager.

By Tuesday night as he fulfilled his final media obligations of a relentless ten days, O'Neill's charming and thoughtful manner remained but it was possible to see the outlines of a stump speech. He would, he repeated, now have to cope with withdrawal symptoms as he contemplated a management job which forced him to be separated from the players until March.

In two games, O'Neill might have learned quite a bit. In the next week, he will return to Dublin and, as he put it, "get to know the rules" as John Delaney and Stephen Driver, the FAI's operations director, explain the details of the eligibility laws and other matters that will take up O'Neill's time until the game against Serbia.

O'Neill will hope to expand the pool of players he can select from but he knows it can be frustrating work. "Even though they might actually qualify for playing for us, you might find somebody who has no interest in playing. If they haven't, I'll dismiss it immediately."

In his last days in the job, Giovanni Trapattoni suggested the new manager would have problems finding new players as his management team had "discovered all the Irish players". When asked if the new manager could change the style, Trapattoni replied, "I give you my telephone number, after one or two games you can call me."

Trapattoni might say he is vindicated if he watched Paul Green perform well on Tuesday night but he would find it harder to argue that the style hasn't changed.

After two games, O'Neill may already be clear about some things. Wes Hoolahan may have found more room to play against Latvia than Anthony Stokes was allowed against Poland but he should become an automatic choice for Ireland in 2014.

The most radical change from the previous era is that O'Neill doesn't view the players as dismissively as Trapattoni appeared to do. Imagination and wit were almost seen as impediments under the old regime which preferred to select players they felt would perform all they asked and, critically, no more.

Aiden McGeady has been an early beneficiary of the changes but the squad seems revitalised by a manager who is prepared to believe they can play football.

Ireland's style in Poznan was more familiar but there were subtle changes. Marc Wilson had a successful week. O'Neill, he says, "lets you get on with things" and when Wilson was asked to play centre-back, the conversation was straightforward with O'Neill simply asking him if he felt comfortable playing in that position.

"He puts positive thoughts into your head," Wilson says. "It's early days, but I think all the lads enjoy it a bit more. He wants to play positively, and the same time, there's not to be any messing about at the back; if it needs to go, it needs to go."

Wilson took a few risks on Tuesday night but his retention at centre-back appeared to be an early sign of the manager's thinking.

Both Keane and O'Neill took training sessions over the ten days. O'Neill was cast as a manager who stayed away from the training ground but it is a reputation that baffles him. "An absolute myth and I'd love at some stage or other dispel it," he says. "I'll tell you something, I could count on the fingers of one hand in 20 years the number of days I haven't been at training."

He has coached wherever he has been, he says, and he finds the idea that he shows up on the day of a game and "rubs your face or something" a bewildering one. At its root may be the notion that he is the heir to Brian Clough, but even Clough's reputation wasn't wholly accurate.

"One thing I will say about Brian Clough," O'Neill adds. "People say he didn't coach. Brian Clough taught things to players that have stood the test of time, that some coaches would have missed, points they would have missed. Points that I'd never heard about."

The FAI hope that the appointment of O'Neill and Keane can lead to a re-imagining of the Irish team. Over the coming weeks, they will establish exactly what can be done with the pair on the commercial level but all sides know that if the team is successful, there will be more enthusiasm because of the charisma of the management team. "I'd have idolised them when I was younger," Marc Wilson says.

Even among the opposition there was an enhanced respect. The Polish team watched Ireland's game against Latvia before last week's game and it was strange to hear opponents talk about an Irish side without using words like 'physical' or referencing their spirit.

Wojciech Szczesny believed Ireland had been "terrific" against Latvia. The Arsenal and Poland goalkeeper was happy to keep a clean sheet when Poland are dealing with their own problems but he also noted a change in Ireland's style.

"They showed they can go out and play attractive football, not so much against us but I put that down to the pitch a little bit and you couldn't really play football on it, it was more of a rugby pitch. They're going to do very well playing the style they showed against Latvia."

The managerial appointment had also registered. "They have a fantastic manager with a lot of experience and Roy Keane has come in as well and I don't have to say a lot about him."

Keane's willingness to do whatever was required, just as any other assistant would, quickly became a normal sight over the past ten days. There may be moments of difficulty ahead but to see him wander among the players as they warmed up on Tuesday night with a quiet word for some like McGeady was to understand what O'Neill wanted from his appointment.

Those players who had previous encounters were also happy to confirm the past was the past. "At Ipswich I was captain," Jonathan Walters said. "I wanted to leave and he wanted me to stay so obviously it wasn't going to be all hugs and cuddles. There was a difference of opinion. We moved on straight away, it was fine."

There will be tougher weeks but O'Neill has made the strongest of first impressions. He wanted every player to get some playing time and he achieved that, even if it meant that Robbie Keane was not involved against Poland, a rare occasion when the player is available, if not fully fit. "In the scheme of things, I wouldn't have minded Robbie getting on as well," O'Neill said. "However it wasn't to be. I wanted to see other people."

Yet Ireland do not have a manager who will try to win a popularity contest. O'Neill is a manager who knows his mind and knows what he wants from his teams. He has always been removed from the clubbable world of English football.

"I'm not constantly on the phone to other managers, never have been as a league manager. I don't see the reason for doing that."

The manager knows his own mind. "I'm not in a coterie of little friends. That has never bothered me."

It was put to him that he might need to change as international manager. O'Neill contacted Billy Davies last week to apologise for Andy Reid's injury and he will maintain relationships – 'there's nothing wrong with being polite' – without joining any gang.

"No, I don't think I have to change my character just because I've stepped into this. No, that's me."

He followed with the typical O'Neill self-deprecation which should never be confused with self-doubt. "And let's be fair, the other managers might actually be quite delighted I don't phone them."

Sunday Independent

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