Friday 23 February 2018

'People might have said I'm a bit aloof' - Martin O'Neill explains his Irish managerial methods

26 September 2017; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during a Q&A session following a press conference at the Aviva HQ in Hatch Street Upper, Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
26 September 2017; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during a Q&A session following a press conference at the Aviva HQ in Hatch Street Upper, Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Luke Edwards

As a player at Nottingham Forest, Martin O'Neill was part of one of the great underdog stories, forming an integral part of the side which won two European Cups under Brian Clough.

It is an experience he still draws on decades later. It fuelled his success at Leicester - where he won two League Cups as a manager - and his determination to inspire an Ireland team, lacking world-class players, to punch above their weight.

"There are comparisons with the job I did at Leicester and what I'm doing at Ireland - it does bring out something in my personality," O'Neill says.

"That love of the underdog. I had that as a player at Nottingham Forest too, when we won the league and the European Cup. Those were the great days of my playing career, under Brian Clough, and that stays with you as a manager.

"Clough used to play on that in the media, the underdog thing, but he never gave a feeling of inadequacy to the players. Far from it, in fact. The best managers do that."

Indeed, empowering players - and making them feel valued - lies at the heart of the O'Neill philosophy.

"Football is about the players," he says. "When we were growing up, the dream was to be a cricketer or a footballer - it was to score a 100 in a Test match, it was to score the winning goal at Wembley or in a European Cup final. I don't think there are many 10-year-olds dreaming of standing on a touchline directing the team.

"The manager is very, very important, I'm not minimising that. Great managers are worth their weight in gold, but the game belongs to the players. You want to see the players performing, the great managers try and get a reflection of themselves in the players."

There are those who have argued that O'Neill, at the age of 65, is no longer relevant as a tactician; a dinosaur who cannot keep up with a younger breed of dynamic managers with new styles and formations.

Such accusations irritate him, given his success. As does the persistent accusation in Ireland, that his team do not have any clear tactical guidance.

O'Neill does not follow fashions and, unlike some, does not try to blind critics with talk of philosophies and brands. In private, O'Neill often scoffs at those who have tried to suggest they have reinvented football from the dugout.

"Words like philosophy seem to be used now and accepted," says O'Neill. "I have no problem with that, but everybody has a philosophy. Clough had a philosophy, Jock Stein had a philosophy, they just didn't use it every single day to try and baffle people.

The great managers, who might be considered dinosaurs now, they had a philosophy about how they wanted the game to be played. But, the key thing is, regardless of the players they had at their disposal, they had to try and get the very best out of them.

"If you are trying to compete and win against teams who might look stronger on paper, you are at a disadvantage, but you have to try and make up for those disadvantages in any way you can.

"You find a way to get the best out of what you have, but I've never played the same system throughout my career. You set up your team to find a way to win.

"You have to try and shut down the other team. If you are going up against a side that is going to have most of the ball, you have to be able to play without the ball. That gives you a chance."

No matter where he has been, players have enjoyed playing for O'Neill and his man-management has always been considered a strength.

The Northern Irishman, much like Clough before him, has an unrivalled ability to get inside a player's head. Not only motivating them, but making them believe they are a better player than anyone has told them before.

He does it in his own way, adopting, but also adapting, Clough's methods to suit his own personality. He knows football and understands what makes footballers tick. Everything is built around that talent.

"It seems to be said of me, that I don't speak to my players very much," he admits. "I'm not sure I agree. You need to be in the midst of the players, but you don't always have to be talking to them.

"They know I'm watching. People might have said I'm a bit aloof, but I'm among the players without inconveniencing them by telling them what to do all the time.

"For me, directing players during a game is crucial. Telling players what they can do to influence a game is the priority. Brian Clough was considered a great man-manager and I hear people say he didn't do a lot of coaching.

"I have to tell you, that is the biggest load of balderdash. Clough did a lot of coaching, but he didn't take us for long sessions and have us standing around, pointing out things all the time. But he was always there, he always joined in, he would make small points, but they were always interesting.

"During a game, that was his real strength. He would point out little things to you and they would really stick because the pressure was on in the midst of a game.

"It was something you had to rectify if you were going to help the team. He had a wonderful way of getting through to you, particularly at half-time. One word of praise from him meant so much.

"The other side to that, if you are constantly making the same mistakes, this is what Cloughie said, and you have been told several times, then that's your fault if you're not in the team.

"If you're told something four times and it doesn't go in, then you have a problem.

He was an excellent coach, he just wasn't on the training ground every single day. But the points he made to us as players, have stood the test of time.

"That's the important aspect of coaching. Some aspects of the game have changed through the years, but not the methods."

Eyebrows were raised when O'Neill announced that Roy Keane would be his assistant manager with Ireland because, as he acknowledged at the time, they did not know each other well.

However, both are former pupils of Clough and what has developed since is a bond that will not be broken easily. Keane may not have looked it at the time, but he is everything O'Neill wants from a member of his coaching team.

"You want loyalty, but you also want someone to challenge you," O'Neill adds.

"You want your coaches to have an opinion, an honest opinion. It would be pointless if they didn't have an opinion. I'm the manager, ultimately it is my responsibility, so I have the final say, but I like people to voice their opinions on a player and a game.

"It's interesting, Clough had Peter Taylor for a long time and a trainer called Jimmy Gordon who he trusted implicitly.

"You forge those bonds and those relationships. It's to do with trust, loyalty and valuing somebody's opinion. That's what I want from my coaches." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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