O’Neill displays amiable ease alongside an ability to draw blood
Don’t let the smile and jokes of the new Ireland manager fool you
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during a press conference at the Gibson Hotel, Dublin. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho.
A day like Saturday is about feeling out and sizing up. We him, him us. A couple of times over the course of the afternoon, Martin O’Neill doubled back on himself to clarify an answer to a previous question and make sure the wrong meaning hadn’t been taken from it.
The ins and outs of the subject weren’t especially complicated or even that interesting and any misinterpretation would have had to go some to be newsworthy. Yet he was dealing with a room he didn’t know and you could see he felt it was better to labour the point rather than have it misunderstood.
The flip-side was that the room was dealing with a manager that it felt it half-knew. And if the half that it knew was just a little bit crazy, it was also thoroughly charming and altar-boy polite and actually, hang on a second, isn’t that all just a little bit worrying when you think about it?
O’Neill’s default setting is such a pleasant spring shower of bonhomie that it’s only natural to wonder whether there’s any heft behind it. Spring showers are all very well but we know the crops need a hard rain to fall from time to time too.
We were drifting towards the very end of his duties when he took a few questions from the handful of writers who’d come over from the north-east of England to see him. They asked if they could ask about Sunderland and almost instantly, his good humour acquired an edge.
“Paolo di Canio?” he smiled. “That managerial charlatan? Absolutely, yeah. Paolo stepped in there and basically, as the weeks ran on, he ran out of excuses. It’s like a 27-year-old manager stepping in and the first thing you do is criticize the fitness of the team beforehand. If you’ve ever seen Aston Villa play, you’ll see the one thing I pride myself on is teams being fit.
“What you’ll find interesting is that when he started, the team wasn’t fit for the Chelsea game. Then the following week when he won at Newcastle, not being fit wasn’t mentioned. Then about two weeks later they got mauled by Aston Villa, someone asked him about the fitness. Suddenly, he didn’t know where to go.
“Because the team, as it progresses, should be getting more fit. And then at the start of the season, when he lost by a late goal at Southampton. suddenly, the fitness wasn’t for that game but for Christmas, when the winter months set in. I did have a wry smile at that one.”
He was warming to his theme now. His treatment at the hands of Sunderland owner Ellis Short had very clearly stung, all the more so when the stories emerged in his wake of some of Di Canio’s more outré diktats. The banishment of tomato ketchup from the club canteen, for instance.