Sunday 22 September 2019

O'Neill: 'There was a feeling that some players were not bothered playing for their country'

Ireland boss says commitment is 100pc under his watch

Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane keep a watchful eye on the players at training
Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane keep a watchful eye on the players at training
Republic of Ireland's Ciaran Clark
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Out of the murky half-light of a damp and gusty Abbottstown morning, Martin O'Neill materialises, arms folded like a stern matron tuned to intercept any frivolity in the nurses' station.

He says little as he watches. On the training ground, there is always a faintly pre-occupied air about him. He can look remote in the congestion, detached and pensive in an environment so crowded with urgent voices.

Roy Keane directs the tempo with staccato commands...

"Go on Sheasy..."

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during a press conference. National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during a press conference. National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

"Look up, look up...."

"Great ball Shane...."

The Corkman's voice cracks through the place like pistol-fire, but it is from a silent O'Neill that the authority glows.

Two years and 10 days as Irish manager, his stewardship has ceased being that "bad cop and bad, bad cop" curiosity he first joked upon to Adrian Chiles on ITV.

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It's a moot point if O'Neill quite understood how resilient that curiosity would prove but, certainly for the first year and a half of his stewardship, it felt like needless soap opera, an assistant generating more headlines than the team.

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill will leave nothing to chance against Bosnia-Herzegovina
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill will leave nothing to chance against Bosnia-Herzegovina

Yet here, at last, it looks and feels like a rational, adult working relationship.

Belatedly, the team has found momentum in its push towards the Euro finals and can close the deal tonight if Bosnia fail to score.

Ordinarily, O'Neill can be a little terse with media on the eve of big games but, when he comes to the auditorium after training, there is the sense of a man quietly confident about his destiny now.

He is asked about pride in his players' resilience through this campaign, a tricky enough question given the job is not yet done.

Ciaran Clark sits stone-faced to his right as O'Neill responds. "Well I think it obviously all boils down to the final game. I've been a....not just because he's sitting here....passing the message pride in the side has been there from the start.

"I think that the players have wanted to play. I think that there was a feeling beforehand that some players just weren't that bothered about playing for their country.

Manager Martin O'Neill is staying grounded after Ireland's positive score draw in Zenica on Friday night
Manager Martin O'Neill is staying grounded after Ireland's positive score draw in Zenica on Friday night

"I haven't witnessed it. I haven't experienced it in the two years that I've been here.

"Obviously it would be terrific if we could do it. But I have to be very, very mindful of the fact that we are a long way away from doing that. We have to put things into perspective.

"Bosnia are capable of scoring to wipe out the advantage of that away goal that we have within minutes of the game. And, suddenly, then they're on the front foot.

"If we think that we can keep them out for 90 minutes and camp ourselves just outside our own penalty area, I think that would be a recipe for disaster. I think that we have to be really on the front foot, genuinely, and go and try to win this game."

There has been a sense for long periods of this journey that O'Neill had not quite connected with the role. Nothing specific, just the gentle suspicion that what we were getting from the Derry man was a watered-down version of what he brought to, say, Celtic in an Old Firm cauldron.

O'Neill's Ireland lacked shape and personality as recently as last June when, after the 1-1 draw with Scotland, he summoned an unconvincing prophecy that the Group might, yet, veer off on an eccentric path.

But three subsequent victories in a row, including the remarkable defeat of Germany last month, transformed the energy around this team.

More pertinently, they reheated the impression of O'Neill as a charismatic football man, capable of making players better.

The first question he was asked yesterday was about last Friday night's Paris atrocities and any attendant misgivings about tonight.

One of those invitations to become a token statesman that most football managers, ordinarily, recoil from because of how it takes them outside the game, outside the cliche almost.

Yet, O'Neill has spent much of his professional life wrestling with the interference of politics in sport.

Here, after all, was the child of a Derry council estate whose resolute GAA upbringing pretty much ruptured when he was denied the opportunity to play a colleges' final at Casement Park because of his soccer involvement with Distillery.

Here was the first Catholic to captain Northern Ireland, a man who would joke to team-mates about the strange novelty of being booed onto the field as distinct from off it for home games at the Protestant fortress of Windsor Park.

Here was someone who became central to the special camaraderie of that Northern Ireland dressing-room during the '82 World Cup when The Sash and The Fields of Athenry would both be sang on the team bus.

Here was a man who has said of himself, "I'm full of anomalies, ironies, paradoxes, downright contradictions to be perfectly honest", someone who felt compelled to bring his two daughters, who have lived their entire lives in England, to the 2003 All-Ireland football final between Tyrone and Armagh for a better understanding of their roots.

When Amhran na BhFiann was played that day, he turned to see both of his girls crying. "That was a great moment for me," he recalled subsequently. "I wanted them to feel Irish."

So, yesterday, O'Neill answered calmly the question about Paris. He spoke of it putting a lot of things in perspective "including football matches".

He said that he did not feel uneasy about tonight's game, that his only real thoughts on the subject didn't really extend beyond sharing the horror of what had unfolded before the eyes of the world.

O'Neill knows how acts of war disfigure all concept of normality. In December '08, he was guest speaker for a Presidential lecture in Aras an Uachtarain, addressing President McAleese and a gathering of students on the topic 'What it means to be Irish'.

He spoke about the experience of being an Irishman working in England during the early to mid-70s, as the carnage of 'The Troubles' extended to cities like London and Birmingham.

In some minds, all Irish people became culpable for the bombs and football dressing-rooms could never be immune to the tension.

O'Neill remembered: "It became more frightening, it became more hostile. And certainly being Irish in those days was a worrying time.

"I felt that maybe perhaps sport in general and maybe football in particular could transcend politics. But I always felt, especially in those days of '74 and '75 where there were a couple of comments made in the dressing-room that suggested you would have an empathy, if not a downright collusion, in the events.

"Irish centres were being fire-bombed in retaliation and I must admit it was a difficult time."

In much of what has passed for his stewardship of Ireland, O'Neill's depth and natural charisma have been largely obscured by the mundane. The campaign has been humdrum, rescued from early ignominy by late goals in Georgia and Germany and in the home tie against Poland.

Through that period, there was minimal consistency of selection or structure. Yet, Scotland's defeat in Georgia opened a door for Ireland and it's to their (and O'Neill's) credit that they stepped through.

Now a monumental 90 minutes beckons and, should Ireland make it, there will scarcely be a debate about whether or not he has done enough for a contract extension.

Yet, he remains an enigma of sorts. His language "absolutely splendid" and "things going delightfully well" seems almost self-mocking at times and there remains the perpetual sense that his mind is cluttered with far more complex stuff than football gossip and systems.

He shakes his head wistfully at the media's need to personalise a story-line. Yesterday, the inevitable bait offered was an invitation to measure the scale of this game with Bosnia in the context of his life in football.

And O'Neill seemed mildly exasperated by the question. "I'm not even sure it's about my managerial career," he said flatly. "It's about the Republic of Ireland trying to win a game to get to France. I don't think I could put it in more simple terms."

What else could he say? That it would trump the European Cup won as a player? The six trophies claimed as Celtic manager? The League Cups won with Leicester?

In an environment endlessly programmed to hold up one story against another, he sometimes acquires the air of a weary intellectual in a beer-hall.

So Martin O'Neill clasps his hands tightly and delivers those bomb-disposal answers. He sighs gently, endlessly wise to the lie that candour is his friend here.

He knows tonight is all that matters. Only the team can write the glory now.

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