Friday 21 September 2018

Comment: Shadow of Clough ghost holding back O'Neill-Keane

Polish effort offers hope but management must now focus on their rapport with players

Brian Clough managed both Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill at Nottingham Forest
Brian Clough managed both Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill at Nottingham Forest
Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
James Lawton

James Lawton

Something happened in Wroclaw, Poland, this week which could just go beyond the extremely good news that Irish international football still has a beating heart and a competitive dignity.

An old and destructive ghost may also have been exorcised. It might be the one of Brian Clough, which many believe remains the greatest influence on the working methods of Roy Keane.

Brian Clough. Photo: Reuters
Brian Clough. Photo: Reuters

They say the fingerprints of the legend were all over the recent disruptive action of Ireland's assistant manager.

But then, who knows, a dark spell may have been broken. If it is so, Callum O'Dowda, Shaun Williams and Aiden O'Brien deserve special credit.

Not only did they play well, they shone a withering light on the malignant mood that had gripped the team.

They played in a way which demanded respect - not the kind of stomach-churning vehemence which has increasingly marked the style of Keane. It was a performance which said enough is enough.

Enough of what precisely? Of the idea of a feudal relationship between a big-name coach and modern players who in more cases than we may sometimes imagine are anxious to produce the best that they have.

It also signalled that it was time to de-mythologise the man whose modus operandi Keane ferociously inhaled - and from which his boss Martin O'Neill had long been separated from on a working basis when it descended into a mind-jumbled alcoholic haze.

Legacy

Yes, we are talking about not the best but the worst of Clough's legacy.

O'Neill knew him at the peak of his powers when, recovering from his ludicrous disaster at Leeds United, he won Nottingham Forest promotion, their first league title and two straight European Cups.

With the steadying hand of Peter Taylor, Clough, for a while, recovered all the wit and ingenuity in his days as the chief inheritor of the age of the super coach in English football.

A few years earlier I happened to be in Derby County's old Baseball Ground when Clough was fired after his title-winning feat. I encountered a posse of players led by goalkeeper Colin Boulton. He was carrying an axe, which he said he would use to smash down the boardroom door.

That was the dressing-room effect of the young and inspiring Clough - the forerunner of, say, the first Jose Mourinho - not the arrogant new arrival at Elland Road who said the Leeds medals should be thrown in the dustbin and that if the brilliant, but injury-prone, Eddie Gray had been a horse he would have been shot long ago.

When Keane arrived at Forest he discovered there had been a reversion to that kind of Clough, one long detached from the restraint imposed by his ally Taylor.

The glories of Europe were a fading memory, Forest were heading for relegation and Clough was sliding out of the game, not only punching Keane in the face but also some young Forest fans when they rushed to congratulate their heroes at the end of a winning performance.

Keane has perhaps one chance to survive in what many are suggesting may well be his last significant role in the game. It will require him to look around, to see the world, and not just football, has changed.

He might well start at the top of the Premier League, where two of the three leading occupants are men who are quite apart from the ethos of a Clough or, in some respects, his most easily identifiable successor, Mourinho.

Maurizio Sarri of Chelsea and Javi Gracia of Watford are about as starry as the average well-balanced plumber. They have travelled the margins of the game across Europe (the 58-year-old Sarri 19 clubs in 28 years, Gracia, 48, 11 in 14 years) and what they have learned so profoundly is that if you lose your dressing-room it is time to make new travel plans. Jurgen Klopp may have accumulated more glory but he has absorbed the lessons gleaned by the men at his shoulder in the early going.

The most vital one is to get close to your players and this is maybe the last one to be grasped by the outstanding Antonio Conte, Sarri's predecessor who drove Chelsea too hard after a superb title-winning first season.

We will know a little better Mourinho's chances of avoiding Conte's fate after his United face Gracia's team tomorrow night.

The man from the bull-running town of Pamplona is, despite his modest demeanour, not free of that city's passions and Watford players have been told they have to pay £100 (€112) for every minute they are late for training.

Rapport

It has apparently done nothing to dull a rapport which overwhelmed Tottenham and now threatens to seriously investigate the will of United and some of their most disaffected stars, most persistently Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, players who, you must suspect, would walk into almost any team with the support of a coach who truly believed in them.

Watford didn't so much beat Spurs as submit them to a superior will, a belief that they had been given the commitment to challenge any force, however fancied.

Whether O'Neill and a contrite Keane (seeing such a figure is of course believing) can summon anything like such spirit in the coming trials by Denmark and Wales is the question that now demands utterly undivided, and undeflected, attention.

Keane simply cannot afford another burst of verbal violence. When his old hero Clough started hitting people, football could no longer ignore the fact that he had lost it. There is likely to be a similar reaction if Keane errs again.

It will be all the fiercer after Ireland, scorned, abused, kept waiting at the altar by such as Declan Rice, denied the leadership of the inspiring Seamus Coleman, found at least some of the best of themselves one Polish night.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport