Monday 19 November 2018

'The players are not too old to learn' - Martin O'Neill insists he can improve squad but poor results make job harder

 

Ireland boss Martin O'Neill
Ireland boss Martin O'Neill

Colin Young

Anyone looking for detail behind the defiance will be disappointed. His confidence and determination remain intact. Martin O'Neill is good, and always has been, and Ireland will qualify for the Euro 2020 finals.

This was the manager's message in the wake of the latest Irish disappointment - defeat to Wales at the Aviva Stadium capping another bad few days for the international side and its highly-paid management team.

O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane will carry on for next month's home friendly with Northern Ireland, the trip to play Denmark in Aarhus and then, for the December 2 Euro 2020 qualification draw in Dublin's Convention Centre.

O'Neill has never denied that he was going to find international management more challenging without the day-to-day interaction, which makes the time on the Abbotstown training pitches now so valuable. In club management, O'Neill and Keane always handed the coaching sessions to others.

As much as we have to acknowledge the manager's record in the job - in five years he has achieved as much as his predecessors, Mick McCarthy and Giovanni Trapattoni, if not more considering the limitations of his squads and the absence of a Robbie Keane figure - there is a growing clamour that recent performances, and results, point to the fact that he may have run his course.

O'Neill points to his record, and there are the Brian Clough and European Cup reminders as well as occasional references to Roy Keane's reputation and medal haul. But he played for Clough 40 years ago and won cups and championships with Leicester and Celtic in a different Premier League era and a different league. The Premier League in 2018 is unrecognisable from when O'Neill was in his pomp.

Ireland's record under O'Neill confirms his belief that his methods have been successful so far, even if the level of pre-match preparation and analysis in this Ireland camp might not match the forensic information the average Premier League footballer is used to now.

The recent selection of Cyrus Christie, and his perseverance with the Fulham full-back throughout the last two games, is understood to have created resentment, and bewilderment, among recognised midfielders in the squad.

Teams are still named an hour or two before kick-off, with no clues given during or after training sessions. O'Neill maintains the view that performances in training should dictate team selections but too many recent ex-internationals have criticised that policy, the training methods and preparations, for it not to be a concern.

The modern player has a desire to know what his manager expects. What's the plan? What's the player's role in that plan? You win matches through shrewd tactics, good football, and deep analysis of players. Information is key and young footballers must take that to work.

O'Neill has also employed an assistant manager with an alternative view on his crucial role, which clearly has his backing. In the Wales match programme, the Burnley defender Kevin Long features in a Q&A, and names the 2002 World Cup as his favourite memory supporting Ireland as a kid. Does he recall the Keane of that time?

If so, is it the man who almost single-handedly helped Ireland qualify for those finals with his performance in Cyprus? Or the captain who missed the all-important final play-off in Iran because he was injured and could not play twice in a week, but then managed to play for Manchester United days later? Or perhaps the disgraced player who left Saipan after a blazing row with his manager on the eve of the finals?

As Harry Arter has demonstrated, Keane's unique style and contradictory attitude to rest and recovery are not appreciated by all within the set-up.

If Ireland are to avoid finishing bottom of their Nations League group and slipping down to League C, they have to beat Denmark in Aarhus next month and hope Wales then beat Aage Hareide's side in Cardiff. In reality, relegation looks inevitable.

And that will mean a place among the third seeds for the draw in Dublin in December, and the prospect of fighting for one of two automatic qualifying places, as the third-place play-offs no longer exist. Pot 1 currently includes France, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Spain and England and Pot 2 is made up of teams currently in League B, with the final names dependent on next month's results. They are Iceland, Croatia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Russia, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Wales and Denmark.

As O'Neill pointed out, tournament qualification is always tough for Ireland but thanks to three terrible performances, it has been made even tougher. It must have crossed John Delaney's mind that Ireland are in danger of missing out on the Euro 2020 finals. What a disaster it would be to host matches in the Aviva as the Irish players can only watch on.

O'Neill was asked last week why he was so optimistic that he could turn around Ireland's fortunes and, despite the evidence of the last three months and four competitive performances, guarantee an appearance for Ireland when the UEFA jamboree comes to town.

He said: "I am basing it (optimism) on a number of things. You never know when you are going to get players back, so I can't base all of the view on that. It has never been the case. I do not think that we have ever, ever, ever had all the players available.

"That is a lot of a five-year period, so I am not basing it on that alone. It would be nice to have some of them back. No, I am basing it on the fact that some of these lads can improve.

"I can't teach them techniques every single day, I don't have them, that is something they have to do at club level, but I encourage them to get out and practise their techniques, stay behind after training and do it and then it becomes a wee bit less foreign to them in the course of a big game. That might be simplified but we can make it.

"I also tell them, it sounds crazy, but the use of a tennis ball for a start. When I was a kid growing up and my brother was at university, Ferenc Puskas used to keep the ball up 200 times with his feet and I used to think if I could keep a tennis ball up 200 times without dropping it, I would be as good as Ferenc Puskas. Now, I could do 200 keepie-ups by the age of ten but I was never as good as Puskas, but you have to have something. I have told the players to go out with a tennis ball and start practising and I have told them, they definitely will improve. And you are not too old to learn. Naturally, it would be great if you were doing that at 11, but the thing is it is never too late to try and improve technique.

"Final thought here. I honestly think there is a feeling with the players in there that they do want to learn and improve and I think they work on what I teach them here and I do believe it will improve them at club level. You will get a variant of opinion at the very top echelons of the game but I don't think fundamentally my teaching of the players will be incredibly different to hopefully what they are being taught at their clubs."

Clough would be proud. But whether one of the game's greats could manage this Ireland team is a different matter. Even Clough would probably struggle as well.

O’NEILL’S IRELAND: GLASS HALF-EMPTY OR HALF-FULL?

November 2013: Appointed Ireland manager and names Roy Keane as his assistant. Glass full.

November 2013: First game in charge ends with 3-0 home win over Latvia. Glass full.

March 2014: First defeat as Ireland manager, at home to

Serbia in a friendly. Glass half-empty.

October 2014: John O’Shea’s injury-time equaliser earns Ireland a point in Germany. Glass half-full.

October 2015: Ireland beat the Germans at the Aviva Stadium thanks to Shane Long’s winner, guaranteeing a Euro 2016 play-off place. Glass full.

November 2015: Ireland qualify for Euro 2016 with a play-off win over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Glass full.

June 2016: Ireland draw their opening finals game 1-1 with Sweden, with Wes Hoolahan opening the scoring before Ciaran Clark’s own goal. Glass half-full.

June 2016: Belgium cruise to a 3-0 win in Bordeaux, leaving Ireland needing a final group game win over Italy to advance. Glass half-empty.

June 2016: Ireland defeat Italy in their final group game of Euro 2016 in France to qualify for the knock-out stages. Glass full.

June 2016: France knock Ireland out of Euro 2016. Glass empty.

August 2016: Record goalscorer Robbie Keane retires from international football. Glass empty. 

September 2017: After a strong start to their World Cup 2018 qualifying group, Ireland suffer damaging results against Serbia and in Georgia. Glass half-empty.

October 2017: Ireland defeat Wales in Cardiff to finish second in their group and reach the World Cup 2018 play-offs. Glass half-full.

November 2017: A Christian Eriksen hat-trick ends Ireland’s World Cup dream in a humiliating 5-1 thrashing. Glass empty.

September 2018: An under-strength Ireland return to Cardiff for the inaugural Nations League game and lose 4-1. Glass half-empty.

October 2018. The Nations League woes continue with a point from dreadful home games against Denmark and Wales. Ireland face being third seeds for the forthcoming Euro 2020 qualifying draw. Glass empty.

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