Tuesday 24 April 2018

Lawton: Players' hearts and O'Neill's mind can take modest squad a long way

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has plenty of faith in his players. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has plenty of faith in his players. Photo: Sportsfile
James Lawton

James Lawton

There is a good reason why Martin O'Neill seems so calm and unflustered about tomorrow's vital World Cup qualifier in Vienna. However injury-ravaged his squad, he knows he is secure in one most valuable asset.

It is his certainty that his players, whoever they turn out to be, will play. That they will care.

There might have been a time when such an assumption was akin to believing that the sun would also come up in the morning.

Not anymore. Not when so many big club and international managers spend less time worrying about their star player's hamstring than his heart, his willingness to go the extra yards.

That O'Neill is free from such gut-wrenching speculation - even as he frets over the loss of Shane Long and Daryl Murphy and doubts over Stephen Ward and John O'Shea - is both good luck and his own achievement.

The good luck is the enduring nature of the Irish international football culture which broke so much new ground under Jack Charlton. The achievement is to have re-marshalled it with the vigour and intelligence which has so firmly returned the team to the ranks of the more notable over-achievers.

This surely is the meaning of last summer's honourable exit from the European Championships sudden-death phase - something beyond a much respected, apparently emerging Austrian team - and an impressive start to World Cup qualifying.

If O'Neill walked away tomorrow he would not lack signposts of a job conspicuously well done.

Beating the reigning world champions in competitive action was one ineradicable mark. So was the defeat of the Italians so fired by the furies of their extraordinary coach Antonio Conte.

These are considerable notches on the belt of an O'Neill whose potentially significant draw in Belgrade recently was fresh evidence of a manager and team immersed in the art of the possible.

It was hardly a model performance and owed a lot to the resilience of goalkeeper Darren Randolph. Most vital, though, was the refusal to accept the inevitability of defeat once the Serbs reached down for the best of their considerable collective talent.

Ireland's players proofed themselves against the charge of indifference which Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho launched in the thinnest of coded messages against his defenders Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling.

The heavy implication that they had displayed a low pain threshold in absenting themselves from the weekend victory at Swansea itself provoked much criticism.

But the heat of the controversy was no doubt fuelled by a growing perception that many hugely rewarded players have a dwindling appetite for some of the more demanding professional situations.

England's former manager Roy Hodgson never made it on to the record with such reflections when his job was blown away in the European Championships by the shattering defeat to Iceland. Then players earning in excess of £200,000 a week sprawled on the turf and stared blankly into the middle distance.

It was probably with this image in mind that the Football Association leaked the information that interim manager Gareth Southgate would probably be installed on a permanent basis - assuming that tonight's qualifier against Scotland is not to be yet another disaster.

For those responsible for the image of Irish football on the international field, that kind of projection, that happenchance approach to the appointment of the man who would be responsible for shaping a much superior national team, was happily outside of their own recent experience.

When they appointed O'Neill they knew what they were getting - and so did he.

Their certainty was that they had a man of deep experience, considerable success and a still visible passion.

His certainty was that he would be in charge of players who while maybe uneven in technique and consistent performance were eager to develop themselves at the highest level of the game.

Who, while measuring the progress of such as Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, Shane Long, Jeff Hendrick and James McClean, could now deny that it was an extremely clear-eyed assessment of his challenge?

O'Neill knows the odds against him, has no illusions about the fact that the success in Belgrade, for example, owed a whole lot more to endeavour and defiance than optimum performance.

But one thing he also knows beyond doubt is that en route to Vienna he will not have to perform the ritual of legendary old Derby County manager Harry Storer.

Famous for his assertions that the team's success was due to the 'harmonium' in the dressing-room, and that when they won he always bought them steak with all the 'tarnishings', he was once spotted counting up his players at the door of the bus before a difficult away game.

When most of the team had passed him, Storer was heard murmuring 'three and a half.' He was asked what he was doing. He replied, "I'm not counting heads, I'm counting hearts."

O'Neill knows that he is blessedly free from the need for such a chore.

Irish Independent

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