Saturday 14 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: Confident expression on the field is still missing off it

Now O’Neill prefers tracksuit bottoms and engages furiously from the coaches’ box. Photo: Miguel Medina/Getty Images
Now O’Neill prefers tracksuit bottoms and engages furiously from the coaches’ box. Photo: Miguel Medina/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Monday evening in Stade de France, the energy bristling off Glenn Whelan towards assembled Irish media brought to mind that of a chicken farmer encountering a squadron of buzzards.

He didn't reject 'mixed zone' requests to stop for a chat, Whelan ignored them. Pointedly refusing even to risk eye-contact, the midfielder, who had just equalled Liam Brady's record of 72 international caps, walked silently by, looking uncomfortable.

It was an oddly jarring tableau to take from an overall upbeat canvas. The Clondalkin man is about to become the most capped midfielder in Ireland's history, yet could find no appeal in sharing his take on that distinction with those who have chronicled the journey.

As a journalist dipping in and out of coverage of the international game, I was intrigued by his body language. Whelan had just performed an important role in subduing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and was also now arriving at a monumental career milestone.


I asked if one of those he'd walked past had, perhaps, been responsible for criticism of him that might have proved especially hurtful, but the consensus was that nobody had.

Apart from the habitually acerbic work of one TV pundit who never attends Ireland away games, nobody could identify another media figure who's made it their business to rubbish Glenn Whelan as an international midfielder.

Minutes before Whelan's silent walk, Ciaran Clark was spirited at pace past the same tribunal, apparently fearful that someone might expose him to the indignity of a question about the concession of an own goal.

Those who found the courtesy to stop tended to be those who often do; Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, Jonathan Walters. As it happened, James McCarthy also made time to shoot the breeze on Monday night just as the same TV pundit took to describing him as "a waste of space" on RTE.

Routinely, the Irish team's relationship with its media lacks the adult maturity so visible in how other countries do their business. Interaction is rationed tightly and kept, largely, to only the most superficial level.

Maybe the broad view is that our media has reaped what it has sown here, yet there is little evidence - apart from that one recurringly obvious exception - of an industry inclined to take cheap shots at its players.

Last week, one senior Irish journalist took a call from the FAI's press officer alerting him to Martin O'Neill's unhappiness at a question he had asked a press conference. The question sought clarity on the squad's visit to their Versailles training ground last Friday morning given the official description of it as "a walk".

That neither side considered such a call remarkable maybe speaks volumes for the skewed dynamic now at play here. It suggested a manager looking to control the media that he engages with so sparingly.

O'Neill is a complex and interesting man. Yet, until last weekend, he had never acceded to a one-to-one interview request from an Irish journalist. Remarkably, that policy ended (or was at least suspended) to allow Paul Kimmage produce a wonderfully compelling Sunday Independent portrait of the Irish manager.

Running to perhaps 10,000 words, the interview made you wonder how such an engaging and natural story-teller could be reduced to having a senior journalist upbraided for asking a perfectly reasonable question.

One of many nuggets from the Sunday Independent interview was O'Neill's admission of how deeply a defeat can still cut him. "I see managers who have done absolutely nothing in the game swaggering in and taking defeat like it didn't matter. Like it was, you know, a bag of sweets on the counter or something: 'Hmmm . . . yeah. . . I might have to pay for those.' Sorry, a hopeless analogy. Yeah I take defeat very, very personally and took defeat as a player very personally, was last out of the dressing-room every time. And I think Roy (Keane) is the same."

O'Neill's academic style of expression can obscure this side of him. He has a formality to his vocabulary that often seems mis-placed in an industry run largely on soundbytes.

When he first took on the Irish job, he tended to wear a suit on the line, his manner remaining faithful to that dress-sense.


Now O'Neill (below) prefers tracksuit bottoms and engages furiously from the coaches' box. Ten minutes before half-time on Monday, the fourth official seemed to challenge him over the intensity of that engagement.

At one point, the Irish manager almost stepped onto the field between Coleman and McCarthy, so exercised was he to get his point across. Up the line, Erik Hamren stood in a tailored three-piece, an accountant next to a street-fighter.

It is impossible not to like O'Neill when he becomes so lost in the moment. His animation actually contributed to Ireland's goal, the manager's quick retrieval of a line ball facilitating Wes Hoolahan's early throw.

That was the O'Neill of his Old Firm days, keyed utterly into the heartbeat of a game and the well-being of his team. Talking is maybe the least important thing that team will be asked to do in France, but must it always constitute some kind of epic chore?

Especially when the only one calling you names is a thousand miles away?

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