Martin O’Neill is key to Irish soccer – don’t write him off as cold and distant

The Republic of Ireland manager’s commitment has served him, and his country, well

Martin O’Neill: the Republic of Ireland manager took the job not to get rich but because he considered it an honour. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Martin O’Neill: the Republic of Ireland manager took the job not to get rich but because he considered it an honour. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

“The hard cold fire of the northerner”. That line from Louis MacNeice is always there when you start thinking about the elements of Martin O’Neill. MacNeice wrote it in 1931, in a poem called, simply, Belfast, and these opening seven words do not immediately strike as a compliment. Yet they can be.

O’Neill moved to Belfast in 1968, aged 16, and some might say he exhibits the city’s paradoxical nature: warmth and force. Cold fire.

If so it has served him well. In the harsh environment of professional soccer management, “hard” and “cold” are necessities, while “fire” is deemed a quality. O’Neill has been in this profession for 31 years, and over those decades – and over the past four years and two months as Republic of Ireland manager – boardrooms, dressingrooms, rival dugouts and fans on terraces have been impressed, sometimes staggered and occasionally disappointed by the overall effect of that cold fire. But, in the main, impressed.

There have been questions about O’Neill’s preparation and style, but not many have queried his commitment. In fact, as recently as October, when Ireland beat Wales in Cardiff, not many were questioning O’Neill at all.

Yes, plenty wondered. They wondered how he is able to shake performances from sometimes middling, underdog XIs at just the right moment, how he gets teams and players over the line.

And they were still wondering after the 0-0 draw against Denmark in Copenhagen in November’s World Cup play-off first leg. And they were still after 29 minutes of the second leg in Dublin. At that moment, with Shane Duffy’s goal beating the Danes and leading to a place in Russia this summer, the wonder continued.

It is at times like this that we reporters fall back on words such as enigma and alchemy to try to distil the intuitive understanding football men such as O’Neill possess. As his Irish-Leicester centre half Gerry Taggart once put it: “He’s very methodical, but not in a very methodical way, if you know what I mean.”

Martin O’Neill at Ireland’s Italy match at Euro 2016: he is able to shake performances from sometimes middling, underdog XIs at just the right moment. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Martin O’Neill at Ireland’s Italy match at Euro 2016: he is able to shake performances from sometimes middling, underdog XIs at just the right moment. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

This half-convinces when a team is winning.

But then the Irish World Cup fell apart. Denmark scored five goals in the next hour, during which O’Neill made half-time substitutions that were, being kind, incongruous. A play-off was lost. A World Cup was gone. Things changed.

People began to wonder what O’Neill had been thinking at half-time. Even he began to wonder if four years in post was enough.

He knows, and he has said it aloud, that managers get their “credibility from winning”. For all the stories of Brian Clough, O’Neill says that victories, not maverick behaviour, made the man great.

And O’Neill had suffered a loss. A bad one. Suddenly the credibility of Cardiff – Hendrick cross, Arter stepover, McClean sure strike – had given way. Doubt moved in. Did Denmark render Wales and everything before irrelevant? Was there not credit in the bank?

“There is a paradox between the two sides of my nature,” O’Neill once said, many moons ago at Leicester City. “Sometimes the emotional moment is more decisive than the analytical moment.”

Maybe the emotions stirred by Christian Eriksen’s skill and vision disturbed O’Neill. As he also said back at the Leicester training ground, 18 years ago, “Sometimes you can have two plans for a match and the game follows a third plan. Sometimes I actually have a sore head at the end of a match thinking about all the things which might have materialised.”

Irish soccer woke up with a sore head in November. As it searched for a pill, according to John Delaney, the head of the Football Association of Ireland, on Wednesday, O’Neill “reflected”.

Reflection was required – from all parties. Had the Denmark scoreline been different, surely there would have been more recognition that, having been drawn from Pot 4 in qualification, finishing second and getting into the play-offs was an achievement. It felt like that got lost.

Every country suffers injuries. Ireland’s was Seamus Coleman, the captain, with his forward thrust from right back. Wes Hoolahan’s goal against Sweden at Euro 2016 came from Coleman.

Martin O'Neill, during his time as Wycombe Wanderers manager, with the Vauxhall Conference Trophy in 1993. Photo: Getty Images

Given the captain’s absence, the presence of 34-year-old Daryl Murphy and the general consensus that O’Neill’s squad lacks the kind of decisive figure Denmark have in Eriksen or Wales in Gareth Bale – or Pot 2 Austria had in David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic – there has been an understanding of expectation.

Within that, there has been criticism of O’Neill’s approach: nobody wants to play as the Irish did in Georgia. But overall, until Denmark, Martin O’Neill was viewed as a good thing, if not a sure thing.

But Denmark 1-5 happened. Then it went quiet. O’Neill was silent, the FAI said nothing, there was drift. Into the vacuum stepped doubt, speculation, Everton, Stoke City and others, and, as time went by, consternation. Should this not be resolved?

Yet Delaney had a point when he said the urgency of the international situation was not comparable to the week-to-week demands of club soccer: Gordon Strachan was sacked by Scotland on October 12th; the IFA began this week unsure of Michael O’Neill’s future.

Since Northern Ireland lost their play-off to Switzerland there have been club approaches to Michael O’Neill. There has been no media uproar about this, in part because of that manager’s accessibility: he speaks regularly to the Belfast media and is as transparent as possible in opaque circumstances.

Martin O’Neill does not have a similar dialogue with the Dublin media that cover the national team, the FAI and the League of Ireland. The desire for this to change is strong – from the media.

I’m an Irish man, I’m Northern. I’m very proud of my roots. I’m very proud of where I was born

Whether O’Neill cares is another matter. He attended the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland dinner in Dublin in the midst of the Stoke developments but made no public comment. There was the insufficient interview with FAI TV on Tuesday confirming he was staying on for another two years. There will, apparently, be no media contact with the national manager until next week in Lausanne, despite his being in Dublin this week.

It makes O’Neill look obtuse. It makes the FAI look weak.

The economic aspect of the unsigned contract is significant in that the IFA in Belfast will receive compensation if Michael O’Neill leaves. Had Martin O’Neill chosen to go to Stoke, from what we know, the FAI would have received nothing.

O’Neill was entitled to talk to Stoke City, though. Another factor lost is that he has been courted because of what he has done with Ireland. Observers from outside Ireland look at the resources available differently from those inside the country.

There is also the bottom-line reality that he had no contract – a consequence of the FAI’s structure, we imagine – and, financially, the escalation in players’ wages in the Premier League is occurring for managers too. It is a hard fact that plenty within professional soccer measure themselves in terms of money.

Our idea of Martin O’Neill is that he does not do that – but he will be aware of his going rate. Aged 65 going on 55, it is going up.

Disappointment: Martin O’Neill as Ireland’s late goal against Austria is disallowed during the World Cup qualifiers in June 2017. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Disappointment: Martin O’Neill as Ireland’s late goal against Austria is disallowed during the World Cup qualifiers in June 2017. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

But he did not take the international job to make himself rich. He took it because he considered it an honour. He did not take the Northern Ireland job, as half of Belfast remembers.

Pretending to know Martin O’Neill well might invite a writ, but having been in his office at Wycombe Wanderers and Leicester City, talked over toast at Parkhead and at Aston Villa’s training ground, and having spent a few hours with him at Sunderland and then last year in London while writing a book on Irish soccer, he is not the obtuse man he appears this week.

He is not a cold, hard northerner – although he can be through professional necessity. He is warm, gregarious, generous with his time and knowledge, and open. He is funny: Neil Lennon tells the story of when Lennon returned to Celtic after the telephoned death threat that ended his Northern Ireland career and O’Neill greeted him with: “Ah, Neil, you got my call, then.”

This is not the terse man in the Tony O’Donoghue interviews.

Just as O’Neill is proud to have been a Northern Ireland player in Spain at the 1982 World Cup, he is proud to have been at Euro 2016 as Republic of Ireland manager, because, as he said, “I knew it would have an effect in Ireland.”

“When Jack Charlton took over they qualified for the first time ever, then great moments under Mick McCarthy – qualified for 2002. So you joined that line, you became part of those those things, and I mean that. I actually feel that: you’re part of the history.”

He said it with feeling. A disinterested man does not.

That he might have considered leaving in the wake of Denmark – and been intrigued by the prospect of a different job or better money – should not detract from the authenticity of these emotions.

“I’m now manager of Ireland,” O’Neill concluded last year. “I’m an Irish man, I’m northern. I’m very proud of my roots. I’m very proud of where I was born.”

An articulate man, he might need to restate this – and not on foreign soil. Equally, it would be a great shame if one of the most important figures in the history of Irish soccer, which Martin O’Neill is unquestionably, were to spend the next two years being portrayed as cold and distant.

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