Sunday 25 February 2018

Winning all that counts for 'The Gaffer'

O'Neill very much man in charge as 'dream team' set out to prove their worth

Martin O’Neill’s motivational skills will play a huge role in his efforts to be a success as Ireland manager
Martin O’Neill’s motivational skills will play a huge role in his efforts to be a success as Ireland manager
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE addition of Roy Keane to form a management 'dream team' has dominated the reaction to Irish football's next step but, in the words of a previous incumbent, Martin O'Neill is the gaffer and the buck will stop with him.

Unsurprisingly, the sheer improbability of the new ticket has inspired the headlines since the news broke on Friday and O'Neill has been engaged in smooth contract talks with only the formalities to be ironed out.

When he is unveiled later this week, it's likely that his union with Keane will provide a large bulk of the questioning. The bigger picture, however, is the thought process that brought a notorious procrastinator around to accepting the Ireland job.

In the fall-out from Giovanni Trapattoni's exit, the attractiveness of the position was the main talking point, with respected figures such as Liam Brady leaning towards the 'glass half full' conclusion.

O'Neill, a forensic thinker whose idea of recreation in his playing days was to sit at the back of courtrooms and study the workings of the law, will have pored over every bit of evidence in the cases for and against accepting the role.

Of course, the lack of a seriously attractive club offer was a significant factor. O'Neill was determined to prove Sunderland owner Ellis Short wrong and doing so from an opposition dug-out appealed to the 61-year-old.

But the Kilrea native, who feels that he jumped into the Sunderland job without fully establishing the lie of the land, is too deliberate to make the same mistake again.

Clearly, he saw enough potential to make the Ireland job a viable option to restore his reputation. Now, he must turn his considerable mind to the key decisions.


Everyone became an expert in the final days of the Trapattoni era, with the assertion that 4-4-2 was out of date developing into a fairly safe conversation starter.

Critics of O'Neill would point out that he was rigid at Sunderland, favouring a direct style of play and reluctant to alter his 4-4-1-1. But he's not committed to just one way of setting up his team.

During his time at Leicester and Celtic, he deployed a 3-5-2. He brought the latter to a UEFA Cup final with that approach, a team which featured a formidable midfield three of Paul Lambert, Neil Lennon and Stiliyan Petrov.

Ireland don't exactly have a reservoir of central defensive options, which might prevent him going that route again, but he does have midfielders that could be effective in that formation, while Seamus Coleman could certainly thrive as a wing-back.

O'Neill didn't believe that he was working with a great squad at Sunderland and perhaps his approach was a consequence of that; he didn't trust them enough to try anything too elaborate.

His Celtic team had a better quality of player, with Henrik Larsson the star turn, and they produced entertaining displays on big nights. O'Neill's main brief is to win matches, though, as simple as that sounds and he offered his thoughts on the international game in September.

"It's like tournament football condensed into a few weeks," said O'Neill. "You're not going to be able to do an awful lot with the players.

"What you can do is get organisation in, work on set-pieces, which is a big part of the game." (Reports suggest that former Leicester and Celtic man Steve Guppy could be brought in to specialise in this department).

"It's (about) the winning of the football games," he continued. "I don't think any international manager has to concern himself with a long-term future. If he's part of something that he sets up, well and good, but he has to win football matches."

There is a broader debate to be had about the DNA of the Irish player, as Joachim Loew put it, but that is the primary job of technical director Ruud Dokter



On a similar theme, it will be interesting to see if O'Neill's famed motivational skills succeed in getting requisite improvement from players to make Ireland a better side without serious structural change.

Take Aiden McGeady, for example, a consistent member of the squad who is often accused of flattering to deceive.

When the Spartak Moscow star is on a good day he's a serious threat, yet he has admitted himself that he hasn't exactly brought his best form to the green jersey.

McGeady broke into the Celtic team under O'Neill, who uttered the famous "Ronaldinho beware" after a teenage McGeady announced himself to Glasgow with some outrageous skill in an SPL tie with Hearts.

O'Neill contemplated bringing the winger to both Aston Villa and Sunderland, but those proposed moves never came to fruition. If he can make McGeady shine, then Ireland's end product will improve. The same applies to James McClean, who both thrilled and frustrated his fellow Derryman in their short time together.

Some dubious moves in the transfer market clouded O'Neill's time at Villa, yet he is credited for turning James Milner into a more rounded midfield player that eventually grabbed the attention of Manchester City.

Milner has his limitations and is outshone by the more exciting players that surround him at the Etihad, but if O'Neill's influence can bring Ireland's mid-rank operators up a notch then he'll have done a good job. He will certainly be spending more hours on the training pitch than he did in an average week with his previous employers.


It's a different kind of market to the club scene, but O'Neill is also understood to be intent on fully ascertaining the desire of those who are eligible for the cause. He spent £9.5m to bring Curtis Davies to Aston Villa and the defender, who now plies his trade in the Premier League with Hull, qualifies under the grandparent rule.

A personal affinity with O'Neill could sway the 28-year-old, who is a former England U-21 international.

Belfast boy Ryan McLaughlin, considered to be a rising star at Liverpool, is currently on a hiatus from representative duty after telling Michael O'Neill that he didn't want to play for Northern Ireland at the moment but wouldn't be switching allegiance to the Republic either.

His number will be sought out by the new management team and the defender may face another big decision soon.

Indeed, the appointment of a former Northern Ireland international from Derry is hardly going to help the IFA when it comes to persuading players born north of the border not to switch allegiance to the Republic.

The pulling power of an O'Neill/Keane combination cannot be underestimated; they're both fairly capable of winning people over.

However, while the addition of the Corkman will add to O'Neill's ability to put fire in the belly, the success or failure of the regime shall be determined by his effectiveness at deciding on the right men for the job on the pitch.

After all, he does hold the casting vote.

Irish Independent

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