Tuesday 23 July 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'O'Neill gets the chance to silence his Irish critics'

Forest return gives fired-up Derryman the opportunity to show he is still relevant

Martin O’Neill with Roy Keane during their days on the Ireland sideline. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill with Roy Keane during their days on the Ireland sideline. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

We are living through political times which have highlighted how sections of British society feel that the Irish version of reality is very different from how they see things.

Football, and sport, is supposed to be a release from that.

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Keane in action for Forest against Chelsea in 1991. Photo: Getty
Keane in action for Forest against Chelsea in 1991. Photo: Getty

But the contrasting reactions to Martin O'Neill's appointment at Nottingham Forest has highlighted how geography can radically alter perspective in a very different context.

Granted, it would be wrong to declare that there is a unanimous Irish view on the Derryman's five years in the hotseat here. Even in the fraught ending, he had his backers. There's still a fair chance that history will be kind because of great individual results that were delivered.

The age profile of those who reside on social media would fit in with the demographic of fans that grew particularly weary of O'Neill and Roy Keane's regime in the drawn-out final year.

A number of players had tuned out too, which was a much more pressing problem.

O’Neill celebrates Forest’s 1980 European Cup success. Photo: Getty
O’Neill celebrates Forest’s 1980 European Cup success. Photo: Getty

Well-sourced reports from those who cover Forest closely suggest that their hierarchy took the view that O'Neill's hands were tied with Ireland because he was dealing with the nation's worst squad in a generation or more.

One would suspect that O'Neill and Keane would support that analysis, given their thinly-disguised frustration with the options at their disposal. They found it increasingly difficult to be upbeat.

However, the English review of their stint here has largely overlooked the stale ending - and the feelings it provoked amongst Ireland supporters - because they weren't really paying attention to it.

There is a tendency to look at the profile of the squad and where they play and conclude that the results were a natural consequence.

What more could O'Neill have done is the familiar catch-cry? He was always able to get his side of the story across in the English media. In these forums, there is bemusement - and in some cases disdain - for any level of Irish expectation.

The counterpoint to that is the evidence of the matches where the team had lost the inspiration and the confidence that was a factor in the laudable Euro 2016 campaign.

References to beating Germany and Italy were plentiful in the favourable coverage of Forest's new appointment; the grim dismantling in Cardiff last September and the scoreless run of matches in October and November haven't figured too prominently.

Matt Doherty's withering description of life under O'Neill and Keane and squad concerns about match preparation infuriated the departed duo because the comments were damaging to their reputation.

They help to form the question marks that hang over Forest's call, especially as the rigorous Championship schedule places the emphasis on making the most of the limited window between fixtures.

By all accounts, Forest bosses were also struck by the 66-year-old's enthusiasm. That's no surprise because he is very much capable of hitting the right buttons, especially in the case of this particular employer.

One of the recurring themes of the O'Neill era was the frequency with which he referred back to his achievements at Forest working under Brian Clough.

It was a formative period of his life and his pride at his involvement in a fairly extraordinary story was understandable.

Over time, the Reeling In the Forest Years diversions became a source of derision - a media gripe more than a public one it must be stressed - although there were some great anecdotes intertwined with them.

Maybe the fatigue with the Forest stories was just emblematic of a regime that had run out of steam and needed a new storyline to be fair.

Mind you, perspective is everything too.

Last week, Mick McCarthy tackled questions about Seamus Coleman by harking back to his own history with Jack Charlton when he was out of favour at club level.

O'Neill is hardly the only manager to go back down memory lane and relate a given situation to their own playing career.

The fresh voice always has a more captive audience. In the same interview, McCarthy also made noises about how few of his players were lining out regularly for their clubs.

As it happens, the most consistent soundbite during the O'Neill years was unrelated to Forest nostalgia; instead it was his regret that he wouldn't ever get to work with a 27-year-old Robbie Keane.


He tried to adopt a glass half-full approach to his lot during last summer but confusion around Declan Rice's future and the fall-out of Roy Keane's scraps with players tipped that tumbler over.

In his new brief, he will encounter managers jealous of his resources. Forest have recruited heavily under their current ownership, with the £13m capture of Joao Carvalho from Benfica early last summer a real statement of intent.

Aitor Karanka polarised opinions, and effectively walked before he was pushed with the club still within touching distance of the play-off places.

It was reported he was expected to be in the top six by January 1; Forest fell narrowly short of that target and have still changed things up. O'Neill will be expected to hit the ground running.

He is known to be aggrieved by the way his Irish journey ended, angered by the suggestion that he is 'yesterday's man'.

Forest have given him a chance to show he still has a future in the game.

Irish Independent

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