Thursday 22 August 2019

Comment: Is it too much to ask our coaches to mix style, substance and maybe even a smile?

Talking point

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / UEFA via Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / UEFA via Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Sport these days seems less and less about joy and more and more about reconciling oneself to its joylessness.

Martin O'Neill declared his commitment to the job of being Irish football manager by committing himself to remaining a surly, grumpy presence on our TV screens in his supposed guise as the figurehead of the sport in this country.

Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt disappointed many rugby supporters by reiterating his decision to omit one of the sport's great entertainers from his squad with what seemed to more qualified experts than this one to be, at best, patronising.

The view from the peak of these two decorated coaching careers seems to be an awfully austere, arid space.

Perhaps the punter doesn't care as long as the team is winning regularly and often which, at least in Schmidt's case, appears to be of more bankable reliability than the often haphazard attempts of the soccer team.

Then again, even if Simon Zebo was being hopelessly naive, and professionally suicidal, one wonders if there was not something in his forlorn Dear John letter to 'L'équipe' a few weeks back which might have struck a chord within many sports fans.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"Winning is important but for me it's also important to do it in a certain way," said Zebo, in comments that would have been so forcefully repellent to his coach, it would be surprising were he not to realise the consequences of his honesty.

"But if you ask me to pick between losing in style or winning ugly, I'd choose the second option."

Ireland are more likely than not to win the Six Nations this spring; they have the best squad, the best coach and fewer injuries in key areas than their main rivals, chiefly England.

The hope would be that they may do so with a sense of excitement that can draw out the inner fan in everyone.

Too often, even during their title-winning seasons under Schmidt, Ireland have remained slavishly attached to a pattern of play which appears to the untutored spectator as a proscriptive presentation, rather than a descriptive one.

And there is no room within such an environment for a free spirit, upon which the child-like fantasies of the sports fan can soar.

These hopes were once raised by the French, Ireland's first opponents in the Six Nations tomorrow week, but their joie de vivre has been subjugated by the incessant rigours of the stunningly dull Top 14 league.

When even French flair has become extinct, perhaps teams like Ireland and England cannot be blamed for their ruthless adherence to a Gradgrindian disdain for the fanciful.

And yet there remains a niggling feeling within that a team that prides itself on calculating every possibility now needs to discover a new method beyond the scrupulous adherence to rigorous instruction. The remarkable consistency of the Irish team is a tribute to calculated coaching, exhaustive analysis and thorough adherence to the game-plan from the players.

But doesn't it often seem so antiseptic? Is there not also an acceptance that to entertain can sometimes be an accompaniment to the ruthless business of winning? Is there another way?

One that perhaps can measure risk versus reward and admits the fallibilities of those who, in the quest for the remarkable, sometimes make mistakes.

Isn't that the tightrope walk that lifts so many of us from our seats, rather than that increasing number who seem to spend so much of their time amidst the vast Aviva concourses queueing for overpriced beer?

The Six Nations, we are constantly told, is predicated upon a predictable bread and butter but is it really too much to ask for some jam? Schmidt is the type of human being who worries about letting people down.

But if he were to be brave enough to allow his side unleash their shackles occasionally, and play a more attractive kind of rugby, even if they lose while being brave in the attempt, one wonders if the kind of people he would be letting down are worth it in the first place.

This would seem to be the perfect time for Ireland to challenge everything from how they play the game to who they get to play it. Sadly, this may not be the case.

And yet they still have the best man to do the job and, with a World Cup the overarching goal, the commitment to build upon November promise will surely become a sharper focus, if not this spring, then in the months beyond.

At least Schmidt, for all that some may cavil at the perceived pettiness in his treatment of Zebo and the absence of his "smile" and "vitality", remains a popular figure in Irish sport, and a successful one at that, despite this week's lurch into grumpiness. The same cannot be said for the beleaguered O'Neill.

The Derryman appeared this week for all the world to be a man carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders.

Disregarding the shortening patience of a nation who remained stoically indifferent to his skirt-raising manoeuvres in the direction of Stoke and Everton, O'Neill once more truly finds it impossible to maintain any sense of connection to the sporting public.

And, unlike Schmidt, the credit of being a consistent winner has deserted him. So too any commitment to excitement.

Despite the fleeting fortnight promise of Euro 2016, he has still to determine a style for his team or himself with which to identify with the Irish public.

If it seems such a cheerless pursuit, one wonders why he didn't choose to remain in Stoke and become beloved there, rather than retain such an antagonistic attitude here.

Few should care at his dismissive attitude to the media and instead yearn for some sense of enlightenment when it comes to engaging with football in this country.

Simon Zebo isn't too busy this spring. Perhaps O'Neill might take some time out to visit Cork and borrow his smile.

Irish Independent

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