Saturday 21 September 2019

'Everyone listens when he speaks' - What Martin O'Neill said to fire up his players for Wales win

O'Neill fires up players by emphasising how much playing in a World Cup means

Martin O’Neill ‘lets you know how important it is,’ says Duffy. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill ‘lets you know how important it is,’ says Duffy. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

There was almost nothing left to say as the seconds counted down to the moment when Martin O'Neill and his players left their dressing-room.

Perhaps great words may have seemed needless, with so much energy crackling off the nearly sweating walls. Now was a time for grand deeds.

The manager must choose any message wisely. And so, quite simply, he reminded them why they were here.

He recalled the immense pride that still courses through his veins at captaining his country at a World Cup finals tournament.

Shane Duffy leads the celebrations in Cardiff on Monday night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Shane Duffy leads the celebrations in Cardiff on Monday night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

This was not the often prickly O'Neill who frequently likes to remind pesky journalists that he has also won a European Cup - "a couple of them, in fact" - on those testy occasions when he is being publicly quizzed about tactics or personnel.


Instead, this was the intimate arena in which O'Neill is most comfortable; a sanctum where, at the precise moment, he could reveal just enough of himself in order to allow his players to reveal everything of their selves.

In a week where international football remains ridiculed by those in expectant thrall to the Premier League fare, O'Neill's intervention reminds all of us of its inordinate importance to small countries like Wales and, as Gordon Strachan might aver, the smallest of them all, Scotland.

And, of course Ireland. Both of them.

O'Neill has never encountered a difficulty in transferring his loyalty; neither the two fellow Derrymen looked him in the eyes before becoming totemic titans in the subsequent battle.

"The boss is brilliant," said one of them, Shane Duffy. "He's had so many big-game experiences. He just makes you calm and gets you up for it. He lets you know how important it is, everyone listens when he speaks."

The much misunderstood, misquoted and misbelieved James McClean has close friends in the Northern Ireland squad and would dearly love for both teams to reunite, as they did last summer, for a major tournament.

For the first time since the Republic made their bow on the global stage at Italia '90, an Irish squad entered the latter stages of a World Cup qualifying campaign without the presence of a player with a World Cup finals appearance to call upon.

Robbie Keane's departure denied Ireland such a figure and, for all the joys of 2016, there has long since lingered a concern that those boys of summer have struggled to summon up the necessary conviction and authority to emulate those achievements. That is why O'Neill sought to emotionally engage with his squad in those final few minutes before kick-off.

"To qualify for the World Cup means everything," he told them.

He didn't need to reference the three absent players - Jonathan Walters, Shane Long and Seamus Coleman - without whom Ireland would not have qualified for Euro 2016, to emphasise that only those now available could seize their own destiny.

If the elaborate pay packets enjoyed by the management team are not, perhaps, capable of evincing any sense of tactical preparation as we witnessed in Tbilisi, then it is probably for moments like Cardiff that the cheques are written.

Motivation and encouragement - Roy Keane couldn't stop speaking about encouragement last week - are perhaps capable of being purchased at more bargain prices.

But the persuasive combination of O'Neill's vast experience and Keane's experiences at the highest level have demonstrated that they can evince exceptional deeds from their players.

Compared to the build-up to Tbilisi, when the suggestion is that the players were run ragged in the build-up before being afforded typically perfunctory pre-match guidelines, nights like Cardiff suited the element of motivation trumping tactical preparation.

"He gives the players the belief," John O'Shea told us. "He gives them responsibility and trusts them. He names the team late, some boys might know they're playing, some might not.

"It builds up the trust that when he picks the team he has total faith in them and the boys when he brings them on that they're going to do the job for him."

O'Neill, charging the room with a steely emotional fervour, trusting in their self-reliance and their undoubted character, rather than relying on any elements of skill or nuanced preparation to see them through.

But he also knew that when the moment of destiny would arrive, there was enough talent in the group to provide the telling blow, as evidenced by the combination of Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter which allowed McClean to decorate an ugly contest with its one searing snapshot of wondrous beauty.

And afterwards, all celebrated as if Ireland had won the World Cup itself, rather than merely the right to a play-off place, over 180 minutes, against more supposedly superior opposition.


"We're still a million miles away," said a chippy enough O'Neill in the aftermath, as if resorting to the caricature of a man for whom Ireland should be thankful that its fortunes are in his motivational hands as they eye another famous play-off success.

O'Neill's trust in the team's relentless quest to reveal their true character, like his, that of a proud Irishman willing to honestly work to the bone to overcome all obstacles, served them well here but, over a longer engagement with a potentially world-class side, much more may be required.

"I knew what to expect having worked under Martin's management before but ever since he became involved in the Irish team, we have been able to get these kind of results," added O'Shea.

"Through the two campaigns we have been missing players, but lads have stepped up, we've found goals. It is an incredible spirit.

"There have been a lot of late goals, too, which comes down, firstly, to the boys' conditioning but also to their character. It is a character thing, no doubt. We have the quality. Deep down we have that strong character. We showed it again on Monday."

They only show it when it really matters; had they done so before, and more regularly, they could have topped this group. Adversity suits their character.

"This means nothing unless we qualify," confirms McClean.

O'Neill must weave his peculiar magic once more.

Irish Independent

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