Sunday 21 July 2019

'I would not even answer that' - Ireland woes forgotten on Martin O'Neill's walk down memory lane

Derryman defends managerial record in emotional return to Forest with reminders of past glories all around

Happy return: New Nottingham Forest boss Martin O’Neill poses with a shirt after a press conference at the City Ground. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Happy return: New Nottingham Forest boss Martin O’Neill poses with a shirt after a press conference at the City Ground. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Martin O'Neill's route to the City Ground press conference room took him down a corridor featuring pictures from some of his greatest moments in football.

This was the perfect backdrop for an afternoon packed with anecdotes. And, in this neck of the woods, the desire for Brian Clough stories remains strong. O'Neill shared a couple of his own memories. The laughs were plentiful.

It's safe to assume this was the 66-year-old's most enjoyable day of work in around 15 months, a timeline stretching back to the win in Cardiff that made Ireland's World Cup dream seem possible.

If that was light, then what followed was darkness. On the occasion of this glorious return to Nottingham Forest, the only real discomfort came when he was asked to reflect on the chronology of his Irish demise.

"I wouldn't even be talking about this now," he said, in an attempt to bring the unwelcome diversion to a close. "I am here now to do this particular thing and that's where I'm going."

He had touched on his frustrations prior to that, in a query partially arising from an earlier Clough story.

O'Neill explained how the dual European Cup-winning boss had accepted an invitation to be his guest to the League Cup final in 2000, a match at the old Wembley that ended in victory for his Leicester side.

"He sat around a table like where we are sat now and he was bright and he was ready," said O'Neill. "He just ran the show."

Clough was at a table with O'Neill's wife Geraldine and explained that one of the reasons he was so hard on the Derryman when he was his Forest player was the belief that he could handle criticism.

This theory was tackled during the final stretch of his Irish journey, with chippy post-match television interviews presenting a defensive image. When pressed, O'Neill retains the same views that coloured his mood during the descent: the deep conviction that his work in an FAI tracksuit was undervalued.

He bristled for a brief second as he cast an eye over the year that effectively cost him his job.

"I would not even answer that," he replied, when asked if he took issue with any of the grief that came his way. Instead, he switched focus to the Irish achievements which impressed Forest.

Experimenting

"We qualified for the Euros and had a really good spell in the Euros and we were a game away from World Cup qualification.

"In the last year we did not have very good results. Five of the nine games were friendly matches.

"As I told you before, one was away to France a couple of days before they won the World Cup and we played away in Poland and we played away in Turkey with a side that we were experimenting with. Mick McCarthy has now taken over and Mick will know not to take on those type of friendly matches," he continued, perhaps fittingly on the day that the FAI announced that Bulgaria and New Zealand will visit the Aviva Stadium later in the year. "I thought that was the point."

There may be another day for O'Neill to touch on any lingering regrets, but that will not be a long list.

His strident defence of Roy Keane is a case in point with the Harry Arter row and the associated unrest doing little to sway the manager from his view that the Corkman can be of major assistance to him.

Hence, his assertion that Ireland would not have qualified for Euro 2016 without his influence. Keane has personal and professional business to consider before he can fully commit to Forest, yet O'Neill is hopeful.

They had a cup of tea after their parting of ways from Ireland, yet he suggested that the idea of working together again was not set in stone.

"He is a young man," said O'Neill, "I think that he wants to manage himself and I think that he is very capable of doing that."

Keane was discussed in the context of the modern player and their ability to withstand stern feedback. It's fair to say that the duo share a lot of opinions in common, even if the elder member of the pair acknowledged there might just be times where they have to bite their lip.

"There are changes that have taken place that you address," mused O'Neill.

"I think we will all look at those particular things and what I am talking about is players being able to accept some sort of criticism and fight back.

"From my own viewpoint, that (the idea of fighting back) would have been my stance but I accept that it is not everyone's. And I think that we can all learn."

This, perhaps, was tied in with the most striking takeaway from this exercise.

O'Neill conceded that he might just have to sacrifice a couple of his principles. Perhaps that is the price he must pay for returning to a place that does mean a lot to him; his whole family moved over lock, stock and barrel to the area when the Distillery player's skills earned him a chance over the water.

Forest have a volatile reputation, with their last ten managers failing to get through a full season. O'Neill has accepted an 18-month contract and knows it could be a shorter-term arrangement if they fail to impress on their promotion mission.

In an ideal world, he would have full control of football affairs but acknowledged that the lie of land might be slightly different here with reported interference from above a theme of his predecessor Aitor Karanka's difficulties.

"Back in my early days at Leicester, there was a bit of a boardroom coup which luckily I won," he quipped. "I installed the chairman.

"I think there have been changes (in club football) in the last five years. I did see changes in my latter days at Aston Villa.

"You have to remember who runs the club, and you have to take those things into consideration. And I think if it is a collective effort, I have to work within the parameters I will be given."

Recent Forest history indicates that the quirks of the gig will bring challenges.

But on familiar turf, surrounded by faces he remembered from the days when his star seemed to be perpetually on the rise, you sensed there was nowhere else he would rather be.

Irish Independent

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