Thursday 21 February 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'O'Neill's task is to prove that winning is not complicated'

Talking Point

Bright future: Nottingham Forest will be hoping that Martin O’Neill has what it takes to guide them back into the Premier League. Photo: PA
Bright future: Nottingham Forest will be hoping that Martin O’Neill has what it takes to guide them back into the Premier League. Photo: PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

A year ago this month, Martin O'Neill was linked with the vacant managerial posts at Nottingham Forest and Stoke City.

The Stoke link was the strongest one, reaching a point where it appeared the Derryman was prepared to walk out on Ireland.

Football's short-termism is highlighted by the fact that both Forest and Stoke were looking for new bosses again this January.

Keith Andrews said earlier this week that - putting the emotion to one side - the Stoke model would make more sense for O'Neill.

The family-run club would be more suitable than the volatile ownership model at Forest, and it was a long standing relationship with Stoke chairman Peter Coates that put O'Neill in the frame 12 months ago.

Coates' son John has taken a greater say in the running of affairs, however, and they looked to Luton manager Nathan Jones to plug their gap.

The 45-year-old is regarded as a man on the way up, a Welshman fluent in Spanish who was hugely popular at Luton and admitted to crying on several occasions.

He is also very happy to speak about his approach to the game; there was no doubt that a diamond formation would be implemented. At his unveiling, he elaborated on his philosophy.

Indeed, Mick McCarthy expressed concern last week about the impact this would have on James McClean.

In the aftermath of defeat on his bow at Brentford, Jones spoke about the absence of regrets for imposing his favoured strategy from the outset.

"If I was looking to just come here and win the game as a one-off then I may have gone a different way," he said.

"But we are looking to build something here, we are going to build something here, so I think it is important to get certain things into the players right from the offset.

"We are going to be a side that takes risks, we are going to be a side that plays good attacking football but more importantly we are going to be a side that achieves positives results."

That's a contrast from the tone surrounding Martin O'Neill's arrival at Nottingham Forest.

Blanket local coverage of his unveiling press conference has made little or no reference to what brand of football can be expected from the 66-year-old. It didn't really come up, much as there were rumblings that Aitor Karanka's teams upset the Forest hierarchy because they weren't easy on the eye.

From an Irish perspective, we are in no position to preach. His opening press conference at the Gibson Hotel back in 2013 was low on football detail.

There's a certain logic to this, a parallel between the cases in the sense that both O'Neill and Jones have made opening statements which lean heavily on reasons that strengthened their case for securing the gig.

Jones had an unremarkable playing career, with a brief spell in Spain in his youth an interesting precursor to stints with Southend, Brighton and Yeovil.

Management has delivered him a place in the game that he never enjoyed as a player. He has to talk the talk to prove he belongs.

The contrast with O'Neill is dramatic. It's natural that a return to a place where he won two European Cups, as part of a broader rags-to-riches tale that led to spin-off books and documentaries, will result in nostalgia.

Admittedly, his status didn't earn him a foothold into management. He went into the real world and worked in an insurance firm before getting an opportunity with non-league Grantham Town.

During his mid forties, O'Neill was the tracksuited figure bouncing along the sideline at Leicester. The man of the future. At Celtic, he did inspired great things from great players.

He is known to be slightly sceptical of the next-big-thing managers that come along and - in his view - make it sound like they invented the game.

Ireland had run-ins with Everton during his tenure, and it's safe to say ex-Toffees boss Roberto Martinez wouldn't have been O'Neill's cup of tea.

"There is always a new kid on the block," he said last month. "There are managers out there who have not won a single trophy in British football. You can be labelled so quickly in this game. There is a footballing spiel now.

"Seriously, high pressing, for example. It wasn't called that some years ago. It was trying to dispossess the opposition as close to their goal as possible and then use your craft to create chances.

"I'd call that blue-collar working. Maybe that could be the new buzzword. The great managers get the really good players to be able to do that, get your top-quality players to do that heavy work when it's needed."

It would be fascinating, in time, to hear O'Neill's thoughts on Marcelo Bielsa's impact at Leeds.

The 'Spygate' saga has made for great copy, but the level of detail laid out by Bielsa in his midweek PowerPoint presentation would not have shocked those who work in the area of match analysis.

What was striking was the Argentine's confidence in terms of laying it out publicly. This ties in with reports of the job interview that wowed Leeds bosses, and the hours that he has supposedly put in.

The impressive aspect is not the existence of the data or how it was accumulated; moreso it's how he has used it to develop a clear pattern of play and approach to the game and improve squad members that were there already.

Bielsa has laid out his vision on paper before - Frank Lampard confessed to owning one of his books - and is a godfather-like figure when it comes to dispensing tutorials to aspiring coaches.

With O'Neill, there's always been a mystique about the 'magic', the ability to deliver big results. His former players have come out to bat for him against the 'dinosaur' label.

They say the style of his recent teams was hindered by his resources, but the problems in his grim final stretch with Ireland went beyond style; the issue was the absence of identity and a defined game-plan. Doubts surrounding what was actually going on behind closed doors.

Over a decade into Roy Keane's existence as a manager and coach, it's a challenge to lay out in detail what his philosophy is.

The punditry style of O'Neill's choice for number two doesn't really go underneath the bonnet - the best-known tactics board story of his management career involves the felling of one with a kung-fu kick.

Ultimately, managers at all levels will invariably say that the game is about players and O'Neill would subscribe to that.

"Good players, working hard, with creativity, that's the key to success. Always has been," he asserts.

In other words, give him the tools and he will make it work.

Ahead of today's sold-out visit of Bristol City, the Forest fans who believe they have a squad good enough for promotion will be hoping that O'Neill can still walk the walk.

Irish Independent

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