Saturday 26 May 2018

Clough's principles still hold key to success - but it's not all about attacking, says O'Neill

O’Neill won’t be changing tack with Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
O’Neill won’t be changing tack with Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

John Fallon

Those pining for a radical overhaul of Ireland's playing style under Martin O'Neill will be disappointed, but hardly surprised, to learn the unapologetic manager has no intention of changing tack.

A miserly return of 93 completed passes during the opening World Cup qualifier in Serbia last month underlined the one-dimensional nature of Ireland's tactical approach.

Dundalk's ascent on the European stage may prove there is an alternative to the long-ball reputation attached the game here since the heady days of the Charlton era, but O'Neill insists he's not a revolutionary figure for Irish football.

Like his former player, retired centre-back Richard Dunne, O'Neill doesn't anticipate any great sea change. He even cited the example of his old mentor, Brian Clough, in justifying his assertion that effectiveness prevails over panache when personnel resources are limited.

"If you were to tell me that I have got a 10-year contract, I will get you a really fine side who play football - but you won't win anything," noted the Derryman, contracted to the FAI until the end of the current campaign.

"You can just wait, wait and wait. We're trying to win because supporters want to go to these tournaments, like they did in the summer at the Euros.

"Portugal, who won the Euros, went and lost their first World Cup qualifier in Switzerland.

"I was speaking to their manager at a recent UEFA conference and I bet he would have been ecstatic to get the draw in Serbia that we did.

"We're not Portugal. Just look at the number of Championship players we have. If we could pass it out like Spain, we would do it, but we don't possess that. It has nothing to do with confidence, it has to do with technical ability.

"Roy Keane wouldn't advocate us thumping things long and neither would Brian Clough. But, equally, this idea that Brian mentioned once - that if God wanted football to be played in the air then he would have put grass in the sky - well, that is complete b****x.

"There were matches I played in when he'd come in at half-time, after we'd have pitty-patted around, and then told us to thump it up the field. He wanted to get an idea into our head that you play in important areas of the field only if you have the ability to play it.

"I've got past the stage where I worry about what people are saying. Serbia was a good point to get on the board."

Whereas his Ireland team, particularly against Italy when it was win-or-bust, expressed themselves at the Euros, O'Neill is adamant the long slog of a qualification trek over the next year towards the World Cup in 2018 demands an altogether different mindset.

"In France, we got the opportunity to go and play. Teams will stand off you in tournament football," he contends.

"These are totally different circumstances. This is a new competition now and we have to fight for every minute. We've got to keep at it, not everything is a beautiful moment.

"There are times to get it down and to be comfortable with it in possession, but there is also a point in the game where it is best to just clear it.

"Our players got tired defending the lead in Serbia and there was a natural tendency to drop back.

"It honestly does happen. Italy did it in the European Championship quarter-finals against Germany by playing three at the back, trying to catch the opposition on the counter-attack - and these boys are playing for Juventus and AC Milan."

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