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.
“I’m hoping at some stage or another when John O’Shea asks me at the dinner table to pass him the tomato sauce that I will dispose of it immediately. But then if I feel you can’t win games without tomato sauce I will empty it on his plate, with the chips.
“If somebody could explain to me – [maybe] Paolo, who is Italian – what John Robertson once said: ‘If every team in Italy has pre-match pasta for their meals, how come three get relegated each year?’ It’s an interesting point.
“Ability might come into it. I’d have loved the opportunity to sign 15 players like he did. I never got that opportunity. I was very disappointed at the outcome. I think I would have garnered the five points necessary to have stayed up and the chance maybe to have changed the side.”
The north-east lads went home with their story. But for the rest of us, there was comfort – and some passing irony – in the fact that the one subject of the day that had nothing to do with the Ireland manager’s job had very possibly told us more about the Ireland manager than the ones that had.
All day, he had dealt with the avalanche of Roy Keane inquiries capably and with a whole heart. We eventually got to the point where we were apologising in advance for asking yet another Keane question but he seemed genuine in welcoming them. “No problem, no problem,” he kept saying.
“I think Roy himself has grown since his time in management. He’s had a wee bit of time to reflect. I think he will feel that he might have attacked certain things a wee bit differently.
“But again, I don’t want Roy to lose all those things that make him endearing to you. I use that word advisedly. But seriously, those things that make him big, big news. The lads here with him at Sunderland, they will tell you – he scared the crap out of you, didn’t he?”
He said all this with a smile, the tease and implication as clear as he could make it. Martin O’Neill is not a man who will have the crap scared out of him. Not by a managerial charlatan like Paolo Di Canio, not by an assistant like Roy Keane. Don’t let the smile and the jokes and the undying nice fool you.
A man with a reputation for getting up early can lie in bed all day. A man with humour for a shield can draw a lot of blood when he goes for his knife.