Cardiff further evidence of O’Neill’s ability to galvanize his squad
McClean and Duffy lead those who have handsomely repaid the manager’s faith
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and Shane Duffy celebrate after the win over Wales in Cardiff. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Time and again the players who play for Martin O’Neill say his great strength is the belief he shows in them and how it leaves them wanting to repay him.
Few, though, can have settled their debt to the Republic of Ireland manager in the way James McClean has over the course of the current World Cup campaign.
McClean was in and out of the team before Euro 2016 but was one of the players O’Neill looked to when Ireland needed to beat Italy in Lille and, like Shane Duffy, the West Brom winger has not looked back.
In this World Cup campaign, the 28-year-old has scored four goals in nine appearances with every one of them critical to Ireland securing points. Ironically, perhaps, had McClean managed anything like that sort of return in O’Neill’s last season at Sunderland, the manager might never have ended up in his current job.
The club struggled that year but the defence was sufficiently robust that a few more goals would have produced significant yield and the manager might well have survived through to the summer and beyond. Of 31 league games under O’Neill that season, just seven were won but in 18 of the others adding in a Sunderland goal would have meant an extra point or two.
McClean started 24 times over the course of the full season, coming on in another 12 games but he scored just twice. John O’Shea finished the season with as many goals.
Seven games before the end of the season, with Sunderland just a point clear of the drop zone, O’Neill was sacked and eight months later he accepted the Ireland job. Key to the FAI choosing him was as Giovanni Trapattoni’s replacement was his reputation for man management with former players regularly citing his ability to extract the best from them at key times.
There was widespread frustration with the style of football the Italian had Ireland playing and while O’Neill was also seen as very much a pragmatist, the hope was that his greater ability to connect with the group of players he inherited would lead to at least some improvement on all fronts.
The news last week that he has informally agreed a third two-year contract with the association is confirmation that, while the football is still not too easy on the eye, the results being achieved are keeping his employers happy.
In terms of this Irish team, McClean and Duffy are perhaps his two greatest success stories. But the manner of Monday’s win, like the ones over Germany, Italy and Austria, highlighted his ability to inspire the wider group.
He can make his disappointment forcefully felt at times, it is said, but his preferred approach seems to be to coax and encourage players, sometimes with humour, into raising their game.
He does not, it seems, dwell on detail suggested Craig Bellamy after the Cardiff game with the former Celtic player insisting O’Neill had never worked with him on a set piece but rather settled for encouraging players to get into the box and attack the ball.
Neil Lennon has previously recalled the start of the 1996/97 season at Leicester when O’Neill changed the formation on the eve of the team’s opening game but talked the players through the switch in only the broadest of terms; trusting them instead to understand how their role would change.
“Because he didn’t tell us about it doesn’t mean to say he hadn’t given it a lot of thought,” said the former Northern Ireland international.
There is much less potential to work on the detail of a change like that at international level where the manager and players get to spend only a few days together at a time. But David Meyler, a bit-part player in that Sunderland season, suggests that some work was done in training on the specifics of the approach in Wales although the Corkman talked too about the manager taking the players aside to convey what he needed of them on an individual level.
Few, it seems, are left unaffected by the conversations with players determined to deliver for the 65-year-old.
“He gives the players belief,” says O’Shea, another man to have played under him for both club and country.
“He gives them responsibility and trusts them. He names the team late, some boys might know they’re playing, some might not. But when he picks the team he has total faith in them because the messages are clear beforehand of what we’re looking for; what we’re needing to go and produce.”
John Hartson, who thrived under his management at Celtic, has described O’Neill as “a genius,” claiming “he just gets extra from every player” because, he argues, there is “that fear of letting him down. That fear of being the one that doesn’t quite achieve”.
His current crop seem to agree with Duffy describing him as “brilliant” in the wake of Monday night’s win.
“He’s had so many big-game experiences. He just makes you calm and gets you up for it. He lets you know how important it is and everyone listens when he speaks. It’s great to learn off him, it’s great for me personally, and he’s given me a chance to go out there and perform on a big stage.”
Successfully getting through the playoffs would mean the whole group getting to compete on the biggest stage of them all. All we know about next month’s games ahead of next Tuesday’s draw is that Ireland’s home leg is likely to be on the first or last of the scheduled dates – the 9th or 14th – because of the November Series rugby match against South Africa.
That, and the fact that O’Neill will have his players up for it all again.