Thursday 21 November 2019

Stephen Hunt: Martin O'Neill's low-key style could finally pay dividends this week

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill (left) chats to assistant Roy Keane
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill (left) chats to assistant Roy Keane
Martin O'Neill, manager of Republic of Ireland looks on with assistant Roy Keane during the UEFA EURO 2016 Qualifier Group D match between Republic of Ireland and Scotland at Aviva Stadium on June 13, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill

Stephen Hunt

By the time I walked out on the pitch that evening, I was ready for my encounter with Roberto Carlos. Giovanni Trapattoni had spent the week preparing me for this meeting.

He stressed time and again how dangerous the player was, he let me know he was capable of a moment of brilliance if my concentration lapsed for a second. He told me to be ready, to always be ready.

Trap told me a thousand times never to let my guard down, so when I walked out on that hot night I was ready and poised. If it meant sacrificing any urge to get forward, I would willingly do it. I would abandon any attacking ambitions to contain this dangerous threat.

There was only one thing: we were playing Macedonia and my opponent was Goran Popov, not Roberto Carlos.

Popov was a good player. He was playing for Dynamo Kiev then and he went on to have a spell in the Premier League, but I spent most of the game tracking his every move. I never wanted to take a risk because Trapattoni had told me how dangerous he was.

Former Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni claims he has been contacted by Greece to replace Claudio Ranieri

This was Trap's great strength and his great weakness. Whoever we played, he made us aware of all the damage they could do to us. If we were playing Cyprus or Georgia, the video clips in our pre-match meetings would make it look as if we were playing Spain. Trap wanted us to respect every opponent. Sometimes it felt like he wanted us to fear every opponent. Maybe this was why we could never lift our game against so-called inferior opposition. Trap didn't think anybody was inferior, they were all to be feared, they were all superior.

But we understood what Trap wanted, it was hard not to. I was talking about Trap and Martin O'Neill with a friend last week and he said "you must have known what Trap wanted from you after six months." I said we knew what he wanted after two weeks.

There was a great rigidity about his side but as I look at O'Neill's team I'm a bit more confused. I'm not sure what he wants from the team and I wonder if the players know either. O'Neill is nearly two years into the job and still it is hard to get a sense of what his Ireland side is supposed to be. There have been moments when you could be encouraged and moments when all you could do is despair but spotting the link between them has been the hardest thing of all.

We got a draw against Germany when we played badly and with a formation I didn't expect. I'm pretty sure the players didn't expect it either. Maybe that's a good sign but our failure to beat Scotland or Poland at home, despite playing well at times, showed how far we have to go. They say it's better to have a lucky manager than a good one but I think Ireland need both at the moment. Whether Martin O'Neill is the same manager he was at Leicester or Celtic, when he was very, very good, is open to question.

John O’Shea celebrates his equaliser in Gelsenkirchen with Jon Walters and James McClean

The point in Germany was a result that excited the country but we need a standout home performance from this team as we enter the final stages.

From what I understand, O'Neill is a different type of manager than Trap. He is more of an observer on the training ground; that's something which worked well for him earlier in his career but I'm not sure it's what you need at international level. Most of the time, it helps if you have a coach with a clear idea of what he wants you to do, even if it's a negative idea like Trap's.

Perhaps this week, O'Neill's style will work to his advantage. This is such a huge game that the players might benefit from a coach who isn't in their faces all the time, telling them what they have to fear. Germany are the world champions, there is not much else we need to know. We know what we'll have to do to keep them quiet but I worry that not knowing if we need a draw or a win could cause us problems. In reality, we'd take a point against Germany but who knows what will happen when Scotland play Poland? We might still need a win somewhere in this group and in some ways we should have as good a chance at home to Germany as away in Warsaw.

I hope we play on the front foot anyway. Against Germany, we know who we have to keep quiet and maybe the famous words O'Neill says in the dressing room or in the hotel will have the required effect.

In general, I'd want more from a manager than that but this might be a week when O'Neill's style works to the advantage of the team. This week, Ireland are playing world-beaters so maybe they need a manager who can convince them they can beat anyone.

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