Richie Sadlier: Ireland’s Mr Motivator has winning formula

Whatever it is Martin O’Neill actually does, it works

Martin O’Neill: “People might have said I’m a bit aloof, but I’m among the players without inconveniencing them by telling them what to do all the time.”

Martin O’Neill: “People might have said I’m a bit aloof, but I’m among the players without inconveniencing them by telling them what to do all the time.”

 

It’s hard to explain why you want to impress certain people. It’s difficult to define why they make you want to be better than you already are. For some reason, encouragement from them seems to carry more weight. Given everything that is known about Martin O’Neill’s style of management, it seems he’s one of those people who has that indefinable quality. The players seem to take on board the few words he says, which is just as well given how little else he does.

When I first started to train to be a psychotherapist, it quickly became apparent there was more than one way to practice. Or to put it another way, there was no one approach that was superior to all others given the various types of clients a therapist would meet. The argument goes that no one theory has a monopoly on truth, that no one approach is adequate for all scenarios. The best techniques are ones that meet the needs of the client in front of you, but the relationship you form with them is what matters most. If that’s not right, there’s not a lot you can do to support them.

All this came back to me this week amid the discussion about O’Neill’s methods. To some people, of course, how a manager approaches management is of no interest. It’s boring to even discuss it. It’s a results business to them and nothing else matters. The only information you need can be found in the final score and everything is based entirely around that. What he does or how he does it is irrelevant.

Old school

Shay Given spoke openly last week about O’Neill’s interactions with the Republic of Ireland squad. “Call it old-school, call it what you want” he said, before going on to describe a very hands-off approach. He gave an insight into how O’Neill would have spent this week preparing his players for tonight’s game in Copenhagen. In terms of giving the squad specific information on Denmark, he believes the build-up would have been different to what they were used to under a different regime.

Martin O’Neill speaks to Jeff Hendrick, Daryl Murphy and Stephen Ward at training earlier this weeks. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Martin O’Neill speaks to Jeff Hendrick, Daryl Murphy and Stephen Ward at training earlier this weeks. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

“Normally when squads meet up” explains Given, “the first couple of days would be spent walking through team shape, just walking through stuff, just jogging through stuff. This is how we play, this is how they play. Y’know, ‘Eriksen wants to drop in the hole, Schmeichel wants to zing it long early’, how to counteract that. But they don’t. And I know they won’t.”

O’Neill’s focus, Given believes, would have been elsewhere. “He is a fantastic motivator. The team talks before and at half-time. He really does motivate players. He can be cutting, as well, if someone isn’t doing it right. He can be cutting in his intelligent sort of way”. Basically, he knows exactly what to say and how to say it.

To use the language of psychotherapy, it would appear O’Neill works in a very relational way. It’s not about coaching techniques to him or any specific playing style. It’s not about rigidly adhering to any one tactical approach. He understands them as individuals and communicates with them effectively which is far more use than walking them through team shape. Tapping into what drives them is better than telling them what to do.

Out of touch

Appearing to bristle at accusations he’s out of touch or doesn’t do much, he responded this week to claims that he doesn’t say a lot to his players. “You need to be in the midst of the players, but you don’t always have to be talking to them,” explained O’Neill. “They know I’m watching. People might have said I’m a bit aloof, but I’m among the players without inconveniencing them by telling them what to do all the time.”

Of course, it leaves him vulnerable to accusations he could do more, particularly if things start to go wrong in the play-offs. If Chrisian Eriksen, for example, tears Ireland apart this evening, the focus will be on the lack of planning to prevent it. If the approach play isn’t working or the defensive play is failing, his choice not to work on formations all week will be highlighted. Why on Earth didn’t he spend some time giving them an actual plan?

Ireland’s Wes Hoolahan is embraced by Ireland O’Neill after being substituted against Moldova. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Ireland’s Wes Hoolahan is embraced by Ireland O’Neill after being substituted against Moldova. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

There is no one approach to football management that’s superior to all others. There isn’t one size that fits all types of player. O’Neill’s way is to tap into the psyche of his players, saying the things he intuitively knows will make the difference. He sees they’re people with personalities and not just players with various abilities which is why they’re still alive in this campaign.

In the hands of other managers such an approach would not succeed, but O’Neill has that intangible quality that makes it work. He’s certainly one of those people that the players want to impress. Why else would so few words make such a big difference?

Many therapists allow their clients to take responsibility for themselves and to work out their own solutions to the problems they face. They hold back from giving advice or any strategies that might work, preferring instead to empower the client to work it all out. It seems O’Neill has a similar approach to managing the Republic of Ireland, freeing himself of the burden of handing his team all the answers. Given they’ve come this far it’s hard to fault his judgement.

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