'I've won top club prizes but disappointment stays with you for much longer' - Martin O'Neill on World Cup regrets
Martin O’Neill has had success with Nottingham Forest, Celtic and Ireland but the pain of defeat never leaves him, writes Daniel McDonnell
Martin O'Neill was watching television recently when the broadcasting of an interview from the archives took him by surprise.
He thought he was familiar with most of Brian Clough's work, but this was new material to his eyes. It was a piece recorded during his pomp at Nottingham Forest, with O'Neill reckoning it was filmed around six months after the fairytale European Cup success in 1979.
That is game that resides in the Derryman's mind for different reasons. He was benched for the decider with Malmo in Munich.
"I'd never seen this interview before," says O'Neill, taking up the story. "And he was saying that Trevor Francis was the luckiest boy in the world to have played in that game because if I didn't have my injuries to contend with, then he wouldn't have started. I'd never seen it until recently. Do you know, it was no fantastic consolation to find out."
The subject came up in a Moscow hotel last week as O'Neill was ruminating on the subject of disappointment, on the moments that live with you no matter how hard you try to erase memories.
He enjoyed the World Cup, but the feelings have come with an asterisk. It was a work trip with ITV and Fox - the extent of his tourist activity in Moscow was a boat ride with Henrik Larsson - but the 66-year-old was still rueful over the painful November loss to Denmark that left them on the periphery of the tournament instead of at the centre of it.
It wasn't watching the Danes or even Serbia play that brought the pangs of envy. Instead, it was the festival atmosphere and the realisation that managing a team there might just have ranked up there with anything. The World Cup is the biggest show in sport - 'the absolute ultimate' - and he always thought that captaining Northern Ireland on their 1982 odyssey was the sweetest feeling imaginable.
He now wonders about the sense of satisfaction that his manager, Billy Bingham, must have experienced.
O'Neill was stung by the criticism in the aftermath of that grim night at the Aviva and one has never had to read too far between the lines to conclude that it was a factor in his decision to consider an offer from Stoke - which he says was refused because of a desire to try and relive the Euro 2016 experience two summers from now.
He was frustrated that one result was used to define his tenure yet he concedes that, in his downtime, it's Denmark that consumes thoughts rather than memories of Paris and Lille.
"Of course you have thoughts. You have time to think, that's the point," he says. "At club level, it's just straight on.
"Go back to the Euros. I would say that while beating Germany, the world champions, was phenomenal - there was a finality to the Bosnia play-off matches and you could celebrate that night. It was fantastic.
"Even though it was a great time, and Christmas was great, the build-up to France was incredibly long so you can imagine what it was like when you've lost. And what Christmas was like.
"Don't get me wrong, I wanted to qualify selfishly. The players want to qualify selfishly. But there's a responsibility with the job. You do have the emotions of the nation on you and you want to do it for them.
"You saw the numbers in France, and you imagine the Irish fans would have turned up in their droves in Russia. That's where the disappointment kicks in.
"It's a natural thought I've had during the games here. Have I given the Welsh win a thought? Not at all. If that had been the thing that had qualified us, I would be replaying that."
Which brings us back to that Clough interview.
"I've won the very top club prizes in my career but I think the top sportsmen will tell you that the disappointment stays with you for longer," he says. "I've missed out on a European Cup final because I was injured three weeks beforehand.
"To go back and win the competition the next year and play (v Hamburg) is great. But do I remember lifting the European Cup? They showed it on ITV recently, but I remember more about sitting watching the Malmo game. That's extraordinary really.
"I think of Celtic, and I think about the disappointment of losing the UEFA Cup final against Porto. Have I ever seen that game back in its entirety?
"That was probably the best Henrik Larsson ever played for us, and we lost 3-2. So do I think more about this (Denmark) than the great euphoria of being a part of the Euros in France. Do you know what? Yes.
"Maybe it's the nature of management. Maybe it's my nature."
* * * * *
What did he learn from Russia? O'Neill's honest answer is that it really just confirmed a lot of his existing beliefs about the international game.
He observed Sweden make it to the final eight without having a star in their ranks and saw attributes which he feels that his team already possesses.
"They haven't taught me anything about a collective spirit because that's what we already have. In fact, we have it in abundance, as much as any side competing in these competitions," he stresses.
"They had a strong collective without a game-changer like Ibrahimovic or a Larsson. Obviously, the loss of Seamus Coleman, a truly world-class player, was a blow to us but we still felt we had enough to make it through."
In the finals, Denmark adopted a pragmatic approach that he could understand. "I heard the manager say there was tension because they just wanted to make it through the second phase and my belief is that whether you're Brazil or Saudi Arabia, that is your first objective no matter who are you are … just get out of the group to show it was worthwhile going there," says O'Neill.
England went a bit further, and once they made it past Colombia, O'Neill's view was that the draw had dealt them the opportunity of a lifetime. "Maybe for 100 years they will not get a better chance," is his take.
He elaborated on that stance once the competition drew to a close. "I still feel that way," he said this week,
"Despite the accolades which they have rightly received, it's an opportunity missed. The fact that they've gotten it together doesn't mean the others will stand still. Germany will have a rethink and will come back. Spain will too. The next World Cup is a four and a bit years away. A lot can happen."
And what of Ireland's next four years? O'Neill's recurring point is that his side "need to find a way to win matches and score goals" and he is aware of commentary suggesting Shane Duffy is now his main goal threat.
That's not a compliment, although ironically enough Russia became a set-piece frenzy, with 43pc of goals coming from that avenue.
"For all the talk about England, their best England side in ages, nine of their (12) goals are set-pieces," he says. "It's the most dangerous England side at corner kicks that we've ever seen.
"That's part of the game. The percentage in the World Cup was colossal. With VAR coming into the game more now, set-pieces will be bigger than ever before. That point is worth emphasising."
Ireland have conceded from that route too - it's been a feature of the past year - and O'Neill's viewpoint is that he would like more time to work on that area, referencing the long lead-in to a tournament summer relative to mid-season windows.
"Your preparation time for the qualification matches is very, very limited because players are coming in on different days after their club football," he says. "At the end of the day, the equaliser for Denmark was a short corner. That's a massive moment, a set-piece."
He goes back to the margins. "Things can go wrong in a game," he says. "If you asked the players about what the most important thing we have is, they'd say it's spirit.
"We want to add a bit of flair to that, like Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick showed in France, when they rose to that great occasion. But the whole thing we've done over four years has been built on spirit and togetherness.
"I don't think because we've got beaten by Denmark that we don't suddenly have that. We were beaten in a game where we opened ourselves up because they scored twice in a minute."
Spirit can only take a side so far, though. On the night of the 5-1, O'Neill was asked if his luck had ran out. Criticism of his tactical preparation has irked him, although he accepts it's a part of the job. But he raises the away win in Austria and asks how a team could have achieved that without the right set-up.
His ultimate belief, however, is that the game is about players - not managers - and that Ireland will find it hard without possessing individuals that are at the top of the trade.
That's what he took from Croatia's charge, with O'Neill listing off a selection of the clubs that Zlatko Dalic's panel play for.
"Playing for your country is still a big, big thing and I just think it's psychologically and physically easier in the bigger games if you're just coming off playing a Champions League game or a top-of-the-table clash in the Premier League or the Spanish league or the Italian league," he says.
"Look at Croatia's squad and Rakitic has won a Champions League. Modric has won four. We want a scenario where a number of our players are in the Premier League, that's the target they should set themselves. The more we have doing that, the easier it will be for them to cope.
"The problem as an international manager is that you spend your time looking at things and waiting.
"You are not changing player's futures by working with them on a day-to-day basis like you do at your clubs. I looked at Ashley Young playing for England - I signed him from Watford and he was brilliant for me - and you take some kind of satisfaction from that."
While O'Neill was in Russia, the main Irish move to go through was Graham Burke's switch from Shamrock Rovers to Preston and he does feel that his Irish call influenced it.
There are also a few irons in the fire in terms of tracking players through the eligibility rules. Middlesbrough striker Patrick Bamford has indicated his interest, and O'Neill asserts it would be "ridiculous" not to pursue any leads without delving into specific cases.
In other words, he could do with the options. But is there a point where he needs to speak in positive terms about what his players can do?
"Yes," he replies. "What is the point in me taking myself into a darkened corner and thinking, 'It's not going to change immediately?'
"Sometimes it's a nice feeling to win against the odds. I really respect Uruguay. I look at Diego Godin and I see the parallels with them and Atletico Madrid. It's no coincidence he's in both camps. They've a great old spirit because they've had to fight against the forces of Barcelona and Real Madrid. They are really battling.
"But sometimes it's a nice feeling to look at a player and say, 'He's going to change the game for us'. We were really excited by the Ireland U-17 team at the Euros, they could even have won that tournament.
"It was exciting to watch them play, to see their enthusiasm and the ability of the players. Some of them are playing for very good clubs.
"I think some time in the next decade, Ireland is going to produce a really top-class wonderful footballer," he continues. "A surging midfield player like Roy Keane, or someone who can dribble past two or three and become a top player. Or a goalscorer like Robbie Keane.
"Honestly, it will happen, with a bit of luck. It would be nice if it happened in my time, but it might not.
"Hopefully it's a regular occurrence that the Republic of Ireland are qualifying for competitions in the not too distant future … but you're not just going to make it with sheer durability all of the time."
And yet it was almost enough for Russia. Harry Kane's miss for England when they were 1-0 up against Croatia got him thinking about Denmark again. Sliding doors. He references James McClean's miss when Ireland were ahead, Eriksen's flawless shooting.
"Everything he's hit has gone into the net," he sighs. "But when we are that stretched, much lesser sides than Denmark could have exploited the space. We had to score three goals in the game which is tough for us."
In a sport where they speak of one game at a time, the memories are fresh eight months on because there hasn't been another match of substance.
The World Cup is in the rear view mirror now, but the road towards closure really only starts here.