Martin O’Neill has achieved much but has much left to prove
Managerial successes there for all to see but Sunderland failure raises doubts
Martin O’Neill’s public image is that of a nice guy and his management style has been built on inspiring his players. Photograph: Graham Stuart/AFP/Getty Images
Given he is both interested and available, Martin O’Neill need only convince the FAI he is the man for the job when they come calling about the vacant Ireland manager’s position.
There is little doubt he will see himself as the man for the job as he is not one to doubt his own abilities.
“Not only am I the best man for this job,” he observed not long before his then employers at Sunderland decided otherwise, “but I’m actually the only man for the job”.
“I once really doubted myself before I sat my 11-plus, honestly. I didn’t know whether I was going to pass or not. But then I was only seven at the time. I did pass.”
‘Smart and funny’
The Derry man, born 61 years ago in Kilrea into a family steeped in the GAA, is smart and funny and actually does a nice line in self-deprecation, as when he was asked, upon taking over at Celtic, about the abuse he would receive from Rangers fans:
“I’m not even liked in my own household,” he replied, “so I’ll be fine.”
O’Neill’s public image, though, is that of a nice guy and his management style has been built on inspiring his players, especially in the early days when, with his energy and enthusiasm, he worked wonders, often with decidedly ordinary individuals and teams.
His approach appears to have been, in part, a reaction to the negative way he felt he had been handled as a player.
He spent the bulk of his own playing days at Nottingham Forest, many of them playing for Brian Clough, with whom he never enjoyed a good rapport.
‘Bit of a smart-arse’
Clough said later he had always regarded O’Neill as “a bit of a smart-arse,” while O’Neill claimed Clough had “scared the life out of me”, although it never seems to have stopped him answering back.
He regretted Clough and his assistants had not provided more encouragement, observing they could have got another “20 per cent” out of him.
“In fact,” he remarked, “I played my best football at Norwich after leaving Forest.”
As a manager, though, he seems to be just as obsessed with having things done his way as his former boss was.
“Martin O’Neill is a dictatorial manager,” says Stan Collymore, who played for him at Leicester, “in the style of an Alex Ferguson or a David Moyes – in other words he deals with everything. He knows the cost of everything, he wants total control of everything.”
Crucially, though, he had trusted help where it mattered, with, in particular, John Robertson overseeing training and reporting back.
Many, Collymore included, feel Robertson’s refusal to follow him to the Stadium of Light was at the heart of his failure with Sunderland, where he tried to become more hands on than had been his style.
His commitment was never in question, even when he was working in the lower levels of the game.
“His obsession with Grantham (the first club he managed) was total,” says its then secretary Pat Nixon, “even when we were going places like Bridgenorth to play before three men and a dog.
“What summed him up was he once phoned me at one o’clock in the morning after we’d lost at Spalding to ask whether I thought their third goal was offside. When I told him the time he said: ‘Gerraway’. He was always saying that.”
However successful they have been, though, his sides are not renowned for being easy on the eye and when he returned to management with Sunderland he raised eyebrows by initially suggesting he would like the team to play like Barcelona.
“But,” he promptly added, “we need to win some football matches and I suppose at the moment pragmatism has to be the order of the day.”
By the spring of this year, when the team was again struggling, he was being criticised for his stale tactics, inflexibility, reluctance to give young players their chance and apparent inability to get the ones he was picking to pass the ball effectively; all charges, as it happens, levelled at the man he is expected to replace.
The question for the FAI now is whether his failure with Sunderland was merely a mishap because while his four years at Villa Park divided opinion, it is difficult to pick major holes in his achievements up until then.
Still, his last job seems to have dented the managerial standing of a man once seen as a potential Manchester United manager, and one who came close a few years back to landing the England job, and left many wondering if has lost his touch.
His difficulty may be the association’s opportunity and his appointment would be generally popular but that is not to say he will be the answer to everyone’s prayers.