Martin O’Neill plays media game with style

New Ireland manager was a model of tact and diplomacy but couldn’t resist some sweet little barbs about his deputy Roy Keane

Irish Times Football Correspondent Emmet Malone reports from Martin O'Neill's introduction to the Irish media at the Gibson Hotel in Dublin.

Mon, Nov 11, 2013, 10:52

A familiar face took a seat among the rows of simpering suits and smiling reporters waiting to greet the Republic of Ireland soccer manager. It was Kieran Mulvey, the chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission.

Not a good sign.

Nonetheless, a handy man for the FAI to know, particularly as Saturday’s press conference was about how the new incumbent will cope with his players while also trying to manage his “iconic” but notoriously volcanic assistant.

Nobody can predict if the era of Martin O’Neill and his second-in-command, Roy Keane, will be measured in winning results or managerial meltdowns. Which is half the fun of it.

Mulvey, by the way, was there in his capacity as chairman of the Irish Sports Council. But he’ll be watching the O’Neill-Keane working relationship unfold with as much fascination as the rest of us.

The manager was officially installed with much ado on Saturday. (After FAI boss John Delaney enjoyed a little weekend lap of honour on radio and television to play down his part in landing the dream duo.)

The reverential set-piece in Dublin’s Gibson Hotel didn’t do much to dampen rapidly rising hopes of a speedy rehabilitation for the Boys in Green. The new appointments are sparking a wave of optimism among supporters.

O’Neill and Keane have thrown a lasso over the years of longing, pulling fans back to Lansdowne Road. For now, interest has returned.

The FAI stoked that interest all the way to a top table clothed in a full-length advertisement for Friday night’s game against Latvia.

The press conference was quite a palaver. We’ve seen less fuss during presidential visits.

More than 100 journalists with different levels of accreditation; a scrimmage of photographers; television crews; security men in pairs checking wristbands and passes. There was a rich array of sponsors, a small group of selected supporters, a full muster of past and serving FAI top brass and a large assortment of PR people.

Silent strangers
The guests were segregated from the media until the press conference was due to start, whereupon a side-wall slid across to reveal a group of silent strangers staring in at startled members of the press.

Just as well Roy Keane wasn’t present. The organisers would have had snipers on the rooftops. His absence was seen as an ominous sign by some. Start as you mean to go on, and all that. But the manager explained his deputy was already on duty at a Premier League match in England. Roy’s reputation loomed large in the room and was raised at every opportunity however.

O’Neill seemed relaxed at the prospect of them working together. He may be the gaffer, but Roy Keane is not the gofer. He praised the Corkman to the heavens, but with some sweet little barbs thrown in. This caused confusion among the reporters. But O’Neill was enjoying himself.

“I don’t intend to change Roy too much. I would maybe make the occasional adjustment if that’s possible . . . A little bit of volatility will do no harm, I think.”

Don’t go changin’ Roy, trying to please him. O’Neill loves you just the way you are. Although it’s still early days, obviously.

John Delaney
At times it was difficult to hear the soft-spoken Northern Ireland man due to the contented purring coming from the direction of John Delaney.

It’s not hard to see why he was happy. O’Neill didn’t put a foot wrong. Unhurried and considered, he answered the questions he could and displayed a diplomat’s flair for smoothly deflecting the awkward ones.

Tactics, playing formations, finding fresh talent and team selection was touched upon, but most wanted to hear his opinions on other people in the business: Fergie, Trapattoni and the Keanes, Robbie and Roy. That’s a recipe for trouble.

Would he agree, for example, that the last manager “maybe sucked the confidence out of the team a bit?”

O’Neill faced his questioner with a level gaze. “Do you feel that that was a general view? I mean, was that something . . . I mean, what were your own thoughts on that?”

Then he listened with interest as the reporter said the last manager might have made players feel they couldn’t perform above a particular standard. This sapped confidence. O’Neill didn’t dismiss the suggestion, but said he would not criticise a previous management team and wasn’t personally aware of such a view. “I take your point.”

But for O’Neill, like every other football boss, it’s all about winning – “with style and panache” if possible.

“My enjoyment will come from winning” he declared and clearly of the belief that having Keane riding shotgun will be a huge advantage.

All the press conferences in the world won’t change score-lines. But after watching O’Neill in action – the event was broadcast live – there were a lot of people going around the country this weekend feeling a lot better about our prospects.

It looks like the FAI has already lost the run of itself on foot of their popular managerial coup. They imposed a journalistic apartheid on the proceedings by decreeing that only “sports” journalists could attend the separate briefings for newspaper people. That’s not on.

Meanwhile, the search continues to find a composite nickname for the new boys.

It’s not going well. MonKeaney seems to be the front runner – combining O’Neill’s initials and Keane’s nickname when he first went to Manchester United.

Although the jury is out on whether they stay together long enough for any joint moniker to stick.