Martin O’Neill is still practising what he preaches

Ireland head to Euro 2016 in Paris with spirit and a little splash of audacity

 Robbie Brady celebrates with manager Martin O’Neill after the game at the Aviva. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Robbie Brady celebrates with manager Martin O’Neill after the game at the Aviva. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Just after Paul Lambert was appointed as manager of Wycombe Wanderers in June 2006, he got a call from one of his mentors, who had worked wonders at the same club at the start of a career that would bring garlands and joy. “A couple of words of advice for you, Paul,” said Martin O’Neill. “Just win, and get people to run for you.” O’Neill is still practising what he preaches.

It sounds easy but there are a thousand ex-managers who can confirm the contrary. There is - even though after the defeat at Celtic Park a year ago it did not look like it - more to the Republic of Ireland side that will go to Euro 2016 than mighty spirit. That, however, has been the primary fuel throughout their qualification from the toughest group in Europe and it was the main asset that took them past a Bosnia-Herzegovina side that may have some better technicians but who ended up soundly beaten. Encouragingly, it is a spirit with a fuller flavour than the powerful one generated by O’Neill’s predecessor, Giovanni Trapattoni.

The Italian bred formidable defiance; O’Neill has retained that and augmented it with a positivity that has uplifted players and fans. O’Neill has certainly advocated caution at times but his emphasis has been on instilling a belief that his players can score against anyone, rather than just shut down anyone. The number of late goals Ireland scored throughout their campaign - from Aiden McGeady’s winner in Georgia in the first match to John O’Shea’s equaliser in Germany, Shane Long’s equaliser at home to Poland or Robbie Brady’s opener in Bosnia - showed how deep the belief runs.

The method underlying O’Neill’s alchemy is difficult to define - he does not just big up players with matey bluster, nor does he empower with a method of steel but he projects a likability and credibility that brings the best out of his players.

Unlike under Trapattoni, who showed faith in a small core of players while those on the fringes were left to stew, O’Neill has fostered an inclusiveness that has meant even players not playing have stayed eager and been ready to fill gaps when summoned unexpectedly, as, for example, Cyrus Christie, Stephen Ward or Darren Randolph have shown.

Second Captains

Randolph is a perfect example of another of the qualities O’Neill has shown in this campaign: a knack for getting big selection decisions right. Even the West Ham goalkeeper admits to having been surprised when the manager turned to him rather than David Forde when Shay Given got injured one minute before half-time in the home match against Germany.

Forde had performed brilliantly in the 1-1 draw in Gelsenkirchen earlier in the group, whereas Randolph had never before played a competitive senior international - but, against the world champions with the score at 0-0, O’Neill opted for the more inexperienced goalkeeper and his judgment was vindicated. Randolph has been solid since then and, having started the campaign as No3 at best, he will likely go to the finals as his country’s No1. Deftly, Given may be fazed out.

A similar process of transition has been smoothly applied throughout the team and continued right up to the second leg of the play-off. No one would have criticised O’Neill for restoring O’Shea to the starting lineup for the home match against Bosnia, indeed the manager would probably have been lambasted for not doing so if Edin Dzeko had thrived and Ireland had lost. O’Shea has well over 100 caps and had started every group game; but O’Neill stuck with Ciaran Clark alongside Richard Keogh, central defenders who had never partnered each other before the play-off but did well in the first leg and even better in the second. Suddenly, Ireland do not look so dependent on O’Shea and that is good.

Similarly, under O’Neill, Ireland have continued to score despite the inevitable dwindling of Robbie Keane. It would be a stretch to say that Long and Jonathan Walters have developed into strikers as sharp as Keane once was, but they have certainly become invaluable to their country.

Most heartening of all, perhaps, has been the flourishing of creative players. It is sad that Wes Hoolahan was not given a chance to shine until his 30s but he has taken his opportunity, as have Brady and Jeff Hendrick, the latter pair getting better with every game.

And so the Republic head to Euro 2016 with spirit and a little splash of audacity: no wonder one of the first things that an emotional Walters said after the final whistle last night was that “hopefully we can put right what went wrong in Poland” four years ago.

Guardian services

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