Martin O’Neill’s frosty public face hid a much friendlier side

Ireland manager could be sharp towards the media but was also very amicable at times

Former Ireland manager Martin O’Neill speaks to his assistant Roy Keane. Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Former Ireland manager Martin O’Neill speaks to his assistant Roy Keane. Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

 

Perhaps the most enduring impression made by Martin O’Neill in any of the multitude of interviews he gave during his five years was as the grumpy paranoiac seeking to put RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue in his place during the four and a quarter minute car crash that was their post Nations League draw mixed zone encounter in January of this year.

It sometimes felt like too much was made of their post-match interviews which are often difficult affairs but O’Neill’s dislike of the RTÉ soccer correspondent seemed to go beyond that for some bewildering reason and he allowed it all to hang out for everyone to see that day in Lausanne.

There were other days like it, not least in Sligo back in 2015 when he took grave exception to O’Donoghue asking about the just filled vacancy at Leicester. Moments later, with the cameras off and O’Donogue gone, virtually the same question was the first asked in the newspaper section. After some laughter, he answered in an entirely straightforward way.

Martin O’Neill’s five-year stint as Ireland boss is over. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Martin O’Neill’s stint as Ireland boss has come to an end. File photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

The dailies didn’t escape, though. Only the other night, when asked what he would say to his critics, O’Neill seemed exasperated and said he was staring at them before going back over well trodden-ground about the lack of credit he had received over several years. The home draw against Scotland in 2015 got a special mention.

In an effort to rebuild burnt bridges he embarked a few months ago on a lengthy run of “one on ones” – extended interviews held face to face with individual reporters from different organisations. The one with The Irish Times took quite a detour when he used the opportunity to take me to task on a sub-clause in a sentence buried in a report from two years earlier. He took it to be unfairly critical and though it was good natured enough stuff and he repeatedly apologised for bringing it up, but he still wasn’t willing let it go.

Blind spot

Faced with wider criticism in recent times, he seemed to have a blind spot regarding the irony of defending himself against the charge of being “outdated” by repeatedly referencing his time under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.

He was, nevertheless, an intelligent and articulate man who could be charming and entertaining at other times. Many of his actual ‘jokes’ tended to be corny one liners that had a habit of falling flat and he had to apologise for a terribly ill advised and offensive one told to a live audience in Cork. When he did, though, he sounded like he meant it. And occasionally, when he would tell would a terrific story from some earlier phase in his career and you got a sense of what great company he could be if he actually wanted to be.

The end. O’Neill’s final game came away to Denmark, as his side drew 0-0 in Aarhus. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The end. O’Neill’s final game came away to Denmark, as his side drew 0-0 in Aarhus. File photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

A couple of us had a glimpse of that side of him in Brazil four years ago. Knowing he was working for ITV and knowing where they were broadcasting from, Dan McDonnell of The Irish Independent and I approached him as he started back towards his hotel. He told us to come there the next morning and after a lengthy interview, the meeting turned into a more casual chat.

He complained about not getting to see more of the ‘real’ Brazil, to get away from the five star bubble and we mentioned we were due to visit a football project in a nearby favela the following day. He enthusiastically accepted an invitation to join us.

He was a pleasure to be with that day and seemed deeply engaged by the people he met and the work they were doing. Afterwards when Dan and I decided to raise some money in order to buy sports equipment for the project, he donated generously and asked only last week about how the work there was surviving the dramatic change in political climate.

It made no difference to our relationship, of course. That would still be frosty when you questioned his performance even though answering was a part of his very well paid job but then as football managers go, he was hardly unique on that score.

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