Ken Early: Don’t forget Trapattoni era when judging Martin O’Neill
Ahead of the last game he must decide whether to keep the faith, or to be ruthless
One of the wisest things Roy Keane ever said about management was: “There’s a fine line between loyalty and stupidity.”
It’s a dilemma for every manager – when to keep faith with an underperforming player, and when to bomb them out. Love and fear are the most powerful motivators but in sport they work best when they are in balance. As a manager Keane tended to err on the side of fear – players he deemed to have fallen short of the required standard would find themselves frozen out. The risk is that sooner or later you end up with most of your squad in the icebox.
Maybe the zero-tolerance approach works better at big teams, where fresh new players can easily be found to replace the frozen ones. Managers of little teams who have only a limited selection of players can’t always afford to be so ruthless. The little-team manager more often has to choose faith, in the hope that his belief in the players will inspire them.
Underlying uneaseIreland’s 1-1 draw against Sweden left Martin O’Neill with a couple of decisions to make. Ciaran Clark’s otherwise acceptable performance had been marred by the fact that he had recorded Sweden’s only shots on target. Was his one-man onslaught on the Irish goal just bad luck, or the symptom of some underlying unease that might resurface in the next game?
James McCarthy had played badly, getting himself booked and substituted. What had gone wrong? Was there a fitness problem? Might he grow into the tournament if he got another chance, or was it time for O’Neill to cut his losses?
O’Neill decided to trust his players. Clark and McCarthy both started against Belgium, and each of the three Belgian goals featured a mistake from Clark or McCarthy in the build-up.
You could say O’Neill ignored the warning signs, but a manager who heeded every potential warning sign would end up hiding under his bed.
O’Neill decided to concentrate on the upside potential rather than the downside risk. On another day – a day when the referee felt that a defender jumping up and planting his studs into a forward’s brainstem should result in a penalty and a red card, say – it might have worked out.
It wasn’t one of those days. It was the kind of day where you don’t get the penalty and instead your opponent runs down the other end and scores a goal that leaves you having to chase the game. And this is doubly problematic because today, the guys playing up front for the opposing team are the three best counter-attacking forwards in the Premier League.
That is not to say that O’Neill couldn’t have done anything differently. The way the first half had gone, with Ireland unable to keep possession for longer than a few seconds, reduced to punting balls towards the hopelessly isolated Shane Long, made you wonder if the hour of Daryl Murphy was finally, unexpectedly at hand.
Murphy has no goals in 20 caps but he could have fought with Vermaelen and Alderweireld for those long punts forward, freeing up Long who could be running for the second balls rather than jumping for the first ones.
Of course, introducing Murphy would have been a tacit admission that Ireland had accepted defeat at football and were now trying to win at hoofball. Is that what they came to the European Championships to do? Instead, O’Neill decided to keep things as they were, in the hope that Ireland would regroup and play with more assurance in the second half.
With hindsight that was too optimistic, but how harshly you judge O’Neill for that depends on whether you’d rather have a manager who erred on the side of optimism or pessimism. Unlike his predecessor, O’Neill has generally trusted Ireland’s skilful players: Brady, Hendrick and Hoolahan are the key men in the team. Part of the frustration of Euro 2012 was that Ireland had players sitting on the bench or at home who probably should have been on the pitch. At Euro 2016, we know that what we’re seeing on the pitch is pretty much the best we’ve got.
Still, we’re left to rue the innocence of our mistakes. O’Neill granted some players second chances, but tournament football seldom does. To survive in a tournament you have to be ruthless. If you can’t take the ball, you must at least take the man. Look at the cynicism with which Italy shut down Belgium’s counter-attacks: Bonucci, Chiellini and De Rossi were all booked for tactical fouls.
Saved the gameIf McCarthy had taken down Kevin de Bruyne in the build-up to the first goal, he would have picked up a booking that would have ruled him out of the match against Italy: he might also have saved the game for Ireland. The third goal came after Clark also neglected to chop down Eden Hazard.
As for the second, if one of Antonio Conte’s players lost his man as foolishly as McCarthy lost Axel Witsel, the unfortunate player would be substituted and wondering if there was a witness protection programme somewhere that might take pity on him.
As O’Neill ponders his selection for the decisive game, he’s confronted again with the question of whether to keep the faith, or to be ruthless. If he chooses ruthlessness, maybe the players will pick it up from his example. Against Italy, they’ll need it.