Men on a mission begin to settle in and start planning for Ireland’s future
Martin O’Neill will be exploring the ‘granny rule’ in the next few months
Standing in the heart of the old East, Martin O’Neill may be the football manager who came in from the cold but he certainly wasn’t feeling the November chill in Poznan. The Derry man cut a conspicuously dapper note in his opening two games as Republic of Ireland manager, turning out in a smart suit on both occasions and spurning the winter overcoat.
“Honestly, I was not cold in either of the two games, not at all,” he said shortly before midnight on Tuesday in Poznan.
“Maybe it’s a bit of adrenaline but I was not cold.”
The sartorial dash was a complete departure from the traditional O’Neill sideline wear of tracksuit and sweatshirt. “I’ve had a look at it,” he laughed. I thought . . . ‘I will wear this, wear a tie.’ Just leave it with me. Don’t draw any conclusions.”
If the new look is significant of anything, it is that O’Neill is easing himself gently into the new waters of the international game.
The period around the 10 days has been hectic, from the jubilant FAI presentation to the more fundamental business of getting to know the players. When Paul Green was mentioned for his combative 90 minutes against Poland, O’Neill nodded before frowning slightly.
“Yeah, he put a shift in and he did have a really fine game,” he agreed. “I must admit I didn’t know a significant amount about him in that sense, not having had the opportunity to really study him at close quarters but he did really fine.
“Just on a general point, I think it’s really early yet for me to start making big assumptions on the team. We’ve played the two games, the home game which I’m delighted to have won but we’d have expected to have done so and this game here, it was a totally different game and we have come out of it unscathed in the end. We could create more, obviously, but from the general viewpoint I am pretty pleased. I will now get to see Green and quite a number of them over the next couple of months and I’ll be able to form a stronger impression.”
Now comes the weird part of the international game for O’Neill, who has spent all of his sporting life immersed in the cut and thrust of the English football season. His duties as Ireland manager leave him with several months to just watch his charges and to try and identify new talent.
Scouring league grounds
Unlike his predecessor, O’Neill intends to spend the winter scouring England’s league grounds before Ireland’s next match against Serbia in March. Although he told the players in the dressingroom that he might touch in with an occasional phone call – “Of course, they turned their backs and ran” – he reckons he will probably let them settle back into their club routine now and leave them be until Christmas.
In the longer term, he may go and visit players before club matches – if he gets a sense that it would be beneficial to them. “I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself but that is something I might do.”
He will be return to Dublin over the next fortnight to chart the months ahead with John Delaney and suggested that a short summer tour of the United States, where several World Cup bound nations are expected to base themselves, is a possibility. With a grin, he admits that his attitude towards post-season international matches has completely altered since he became Ireland manager.
“I am going to reverse this. As a club manager, I must admit, I thought ‘what are they up to, the boys should be lying on a beach’. Now I am going to reverse it completely and say to them ‘what were they ever thinking of?’ Obviously as the games in September come closer, I am starting to look at it from that viewpoint that there are only so many times that you can get them.
“There’s a game in March coming up and then the next time will be sometime in the summer. I do accept that players are thinking, depending on where you are going and what you are doing, of the games that we could organise. I am thinking from a distance where they were really, really meaningful then it might be interesting. But I am totally aware of players at the end of the season being absolutely drained.”
O’Neill, however, has never looked more vitalised, clearly thrilled with the response from his new squad. And even from high in the stands on Tuesday night, it was easy to see that Roy Keane is enjoying being part of a football squad again. The Cork man wore shorts and boots for the pre-match warm up, teeing up footballs for the forwards to strike half volleys and low left and right footers into the goal mouth.
Throughout the game, he was talking, encouraging and waiting with a back pat for players as they were substituted. He has never looked more animated – or smiled more – in an Irish camp.
“He’s really into it,” O’Neill said. “Really into it. I think you could tell that from the one press conference he did – hopefully you could tell that. He has been really positive. A positive influence, I should say, because he is positive anyway. It’s early yet, y’know, but I’m sure if you grabbed a word with the players coming out here, they’d have nothing but praise for him so far.”
As O’Neill was speaking, his Polish counterpart Adam Nawalka appeared and delivered a handshake and a word of good luck. “And to you,” O’Neill saluted. “We were just checking to see if Lewandowski is Irish,” he joked. But he will be exploring the “granny rule” in the next few months, studying the genealogy of young prospects in the hope of broadening his squad, all the while piecing together in his mind a first 11 capable of challenging when the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign begins.
“This has been great,” he said again, “and it was right in your face for the number of days that we had.”
Then he was gone: a man on a mission.