Not every day easy, not every day nice
Enjoy the trip lads, here’s looking forward to seeing you guide us on an epic journey
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill with assistant Roy Keane during last night’s training session at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
A pal of mine was at a sports conference not so long ago sitting beside a predecessor of Martin O’Neill at both Celtic and Aston Villa.
Dr Jozef Vengloš, a Slovakian gentleman with a respectable coaching career in the former Czechoslovakia, was asked about his time in Glasgow.
Jozef replied: “Not every day easy, not every day nice.”
Thinking about O’Neill’s maiden voyage with the Republic this week brought me back to February 12th, 2003, up in Hampden Park.
The contrast in preparation couldn’t be more stark, although there is a link.
Having had a very positive meeting with Roy several days before the Scotland game, I could see a pathway for his return to the Irish squad.
But Alex Ferguson and the medical staff at Manchester United had other ideas due to his troublesome hip. They didn’t believe he could stay injury-free while juggling club and international football.
Ferguson made that clear in a somewhat heated call to me but we ended the conversation close to a compromise.
The night before the Scotland game, while engrossed in training, I got the nod from John Fallon that something serious was developing.
Word came from Roy, via his agent Michael Kennedy to Tommy Gorman, behind a PSNI van in Belfast on the Six One News, that Keane would not be returning to the international set-up.
It was a huge blow to my plans of rescuing qualification for Portugal the following summer after defeats to Switzerland and Russia.
That said, it didn’t prevent me enjoying the proudest night of my life 24 hours later. Standing on the touchline with Amhrán na bhFiann being belted out by a decent Irish crowd away to my left was exhilarating and unforgettable.
After 40 years in football it was an emotional night for me and everyone who helped me along the way – friends, foes and family. (I knew in my heart the return of Keane was not a lost cause. The exile duly ended with a one-nil win over Romania. The rest is carved in stone.)
O’Neill and Keane have had the most special nights a player or manager can experience in football but tonight will rank close enough to those that linger long in the memory.
To beat Latvia
Most of all, they will want to beat Latvia, who only achieved eight points from a possible 30 in what looked the weakest qualifier group.
Tuesday in Poznan will give Martin a sterner examination and be of more value as he attempts to sift through the strengths and weaknesses of his squad.
All week people have been entertained by the mostly cheery demeanour of our new dream team.
But that’s a useful mask. The intensity and desire both men will bring to these friendlies will howl through the squad like electricity.
It makes me smile when you think how irrelevant both have seen friendly games in the past.
O’Neill even remarked this week that he would prefer to start with a competitive challenge.
But their roles have changed now. They seem well suited to them too. Dealing with clubs, sifting through the UK leagues for form and talent.
Both were capable of dominating games at the highest level, grabbing nights by the scruff of the neck in their prime.
Midfielders dictate football matches. On recent evidence there is a lack of true quality in Ireland’s central cog.
Although there is potential in the James McCarthy-Darron Gibson axis – more the shame the latter got seriously injured – that can be built upon as opposed to the Keith Andrews-Glenn Whelan combination that Trapattoni was so fond of.
O’Neill cleverly left himself open to the use of different systems, like a third midfielder against better opposition.
He mentioned the pragmatism of Brian Clough playing one striker and five midfielders for the successful European Cup campaign of 1979.
That augurs well for what is coming down the tracks.
Much change in personnel is still coming. The manager inherits a situation where only David Forde, McCarthy, Séamus Coleman and John O’Shea can consider themselves regulars for the future.
Added to list
Also, Robert Brady and Ciarán Clark can eventually be added to that list.
The practical challenges tonight and Tuesday are to sort out the left-back position, a cohesive centre-half pairing and a system that creates more chances.
Will there be room for a play-maker like Reid or Wes Hoolahan?
With so many of the current squad in and out of their current club sides, chasing the right club game at the weekend will be tricky for Roy and Martin.
Not every day easy, not every day nice. I’ve often thought this a great description for life in general. It also fits nicely with the job of managing the Republic of Ireland.
Martin and Roy won’t be long finding that out. These are the good days and we hope for many more.
I loved my time with the national team. Thankfully most of them were nice, not always easy, but nice all the same.
Enjoy the trip lads, we are all looking forward to seeing the finest sporting products of Derry and Cork brings us on what could well be an epic journey.