Richie Sadlier: Let’s not kid ourselves nobody wants to play us
It’s hard to be precise about O’Neill’s winning ways but our seeded rivals won’t fear us
“Nobody will want to play us,” declared Joe Hart ahead of the knockout stages of last year’s Euros.
Despite both the performance and his team selection being heavily criticised, manager Roy Hodgson was in confident mood. “I’m not frightened of anyone” he said later that evening when asked which of four possible opponents he’d prefer to play.
Michael O’Neill said he believed teams would want to avoid his Northern Ireland side in the upcoming play-off draw. Martin O’Neill said the same this week about the Republic of Ireland. Maybe it’s what managers think they should say to project the right mindset to the public, but I’m starting to think there’s a good chance the opposite is the case. If you were a seeded team, why would you not want to play us?
First of all, none of the glowing post-match tributes to O’Neill and his players were wide of the mark. The effort that went into Monday’s victory in Cardiff was incredible. The attitude and commitment required to win the game the way they did was right up there with the great Irish performances of the past. The result is one of the most memorable given everything that was at stake, but it’s not always obvious why O’Neill’s approach works so well.
Even writing about this now probably seems odd. It’s clearly a distant second to the fact we got the three points. After all, in a must-win game the only thing that counts is the result. If you start analysing anything else it can seem like you don’t get it, but it’s certainly relevant now that we’re approaching the play-offs.
One of the most interesting aspects of O’Neill’s approach to management is how little management he seems to do. Former players have spoken this week about his hands-off approach to training and tactics. And some close to the Ireland squad have made similar observations since he took over. More than most, he seems to leave it to his players to deliver.
Craig Bellamy said of his time working under him at Celtic that he once had to ask others for details of the formation before a match.
“There was no information whatsoever” said Bellamy after the game on Monday night. “But he knew his players. You knew where you stood with him and if you played well for him, the confidence he’d give you and the way he’d make you feel, you just want to run even more for him.”
Several of Ireland’s players were full of praise for O’Neill this week. Other managers rely on matters like details on opponents or tactics but the motivational aspects of the job are where he excels. Again, it’s not entirely obvious why it gets results at this level but they yet again delivered when the stakes were at their highest.
That said, watching Ireland play can be gruelling at times. Recall your mood at half-time on Monday evening. I bet you’ve had similar feelings over the last few games with the exception of the home win over Moldova. Think back to the difficulty we had with keeping the ball in the opening period in Cardiff. Or your own frustrations having to watch it.
There wasn’t a marked improvement in the second half, it was just less noticeable because there was a lead to defend. Keeping the ball wasn’t the priority then, which is just as well given the difficulties this team has in ball retention.
Speak to those close to the squad and a picture starts to emerge. Some aren’t quite sure how to describe how O’Neill does what he does. The methods aren’t obvious. Training sessions prior to games aren’t spent picking apart the weaknesses of the opposition. It’s just not his style.
O’Neill and his players are aware of the margins at work here. If Joe Allen hadn’t left the field concussed things could have been different. Had Gareth Bale been available to play they certainly would have been.
Had Scotland not blown it the previous day none of this would have mattered, but even with all those breaks it was still up to the players to capitalise. If they hadn’t, though, O’Neill’s approach would have been spun as under-preparedness and an entirely different narrative would have emerged.
Seven days after Joe Hart’s rallying cry last June, Hodgson resigned following defeat to Iceland and England went home in disgrace. Whether Iceland wanted to play them or not was immaterial, it didn’t help England’s cause either way.
We can’t keep the ball, have the poorest scoring record of any team left and are very limited when it comes to breaking down opponents. If we have to chase the game and open up opponents we struggle. I’d say they’d all be fairly confident they’d have more than enough to beat us, which of course is exactly what could play into Ireland’s hands.
The spirit created by O’Neill may be enough to take the team further, but let’s not kid ourselves that nobody would want to play us.