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History will be kind to Martin O'Neill's tenure as Irish boss but the devil is in the details

He presided over an era of Irish football that conjured some standout moments. But there’s more to management – and legacy – than that.

Q: “WHAT DO YOU say about the suggestion that your teams fizzle out? You start well and then it goes away into uninspired anti-climax?

A: Where did you get that from?

Q: Well, Sunderland for a start.

A: Well, I’m sorry. It’s simply not true. It is not true. Because I’d have to go back to each club that I’ve managed and, in fact, the opposite applies. It’s very interesting because Winston Churchill made a comment once about a lie going halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. And that is absolutely true.”

Martin O’Neill speaking to the BBC’s Pat Murphy following his sacking as Sunderland boss in 2013.   

Only investing in results is fine. Until the results aren’t there anymore.

Then there’s no wiggle room. There’s no reasoning with those who are pointing fingers and asking legitimate questions. All you’re left with is hopeless attempts at finding silver linings. 

Martin O’Neill’s style has never been the most aesthetically pleasing. But, while results were good, his critics had to sit down and shut up.

For a while, his credit ran deep mainly because his greatest accomplishment was the cultivating of an atmosphere and environment that seemed long-gone. It started with the John O’Shea equaliser in Gelsenkirchen. The Shane Long winner in the return fixture against Germany was a genuinely special Irish sports moment. And everything reached its peak with Robbie Brady in Lille.

But, things began to slip after that. And as much as O’Neill will bang the drum of a World Cup play-off exit and how close the side were to reaching Russia, the Irish team had lost much of their spark long before the humiliating defeat to Denmark.

Stephen Finn, an astute football mind and someone with a huge interest in the domestic game, monitored that qualifying campaign closely. He reached many damning conclusions and he posted them all to his blog. None painted as dark a picture as the following passage:

Just nine teams attempted fewer total passes than Ireland in the campaign. All of them played just 10 games. We attempted just 3182 passes in 12 games. Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova and Latvia attempted fewer passes than Ireland. Countries such as Faroe Islands, Montenegro, Estonia and Kosovo all attempted more passes than Ireland despite playing in two fewer total games.”    

Much has been made about the team’s lack of goalscorers but when passing the ball is seemingly outlawed, it’s always going to be hard for them to create chances out of thin air.

Finn continued to study the most recent Ireland games and was hopeful of an upturn mainly because of facing familiar teams operating at a similar level. Each game presented a decent chance of a victory and, failing that, surely some encouraging performances to build on. 

Instead, O’Neill’s side – somehow – were even worse.

The numbers Finn crunched were genuinely numbing. The nosedive was spectacular. 

Across four Nations League fixtures, only three teams – Gibraltar (35%), San Marino (31%) and Andorra (29%) – had less possession than Ireland (37%). Regarding attempted passes, only Estonia, Gibraltar, San Marino and Andorra had less. When it came to attempts on goal, only San Marino and Andorra managed fewer.

Martin O'Neill Source: Ryan Byrne; ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Supporters aren’t stupid. They know when backs are to the wall and when a team must dig in. But similarly, they know that territory and key possession are fundamentals of the game. This is not about Guardiola-era Barcelona but the basics. Players need to be encouraged to make runs and create space, they need to play to the strengths of the personnel in the squad, they need to change the angle of attack, they need to get creative with set-pieces, they need to get quick and incisive players in dangerous areas. Without the ball, you can’t make anything happen. Dropping deep, fearful of engaging with the opposition is effectively waving a white handkerchief. 

The quality – of which there had been little to begin with – had completely disintegrated. 

And yet, through it all, O’Neill was stubbornly refusing to acknowledge any of this.

The strength of his tenure – the atmosphere – had changed irrevocably. The poor results didn’t help but there were other reasons too: the Declan Rice affair, Roy Keane versus Harry Arter and Jon Walters, the leaked WhatsApp audio.

When the pressure was on O’Neill to man-manage, to lead and to change something that was broken, there was no savvy or awareness.

2018, essentially, has been the same episode on repeat.

And that’s why the stagnation is interesting for another reason too: the shadow of Keane and the complexities he brings to the table. 

In his book The Second Half, he talks about the exchange he had with Manchester United assistant Carlos Quieroz after his infamous MUTV interview in late-2005. 

Keane was already irritated that the interview had been pulled and the story had been leaked but when Quieroz said he’d been disloyal to his team-mates by criticising them, Keane flipped and rounded on him. For some reason, Keane also decided it was the perfect time to bring up his dissatisfaction with the same drills being repeated over and over again in training. Quieroz explained that repetition was what was needed.   

But Keane, so hungry for something fresh and different, was adamant. 

“Carlos, do you always make love to your wife in the same position?” he asked a bemused Quieroz. 

Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane Source: Bryan Keane; ©INPHO/Bryan Keane/INPHO

“You change the position, don’t you? Sometimes you have to mix training up a little bit. That’s all I’m saying.”

It was at that point that Alex Ferguson intervened, and when Keane signed his own death warrant. 

“You as well gaffer,” he told a stunned Ferguson. 

We need fucking more from you. We need a bit more, gaffer. We’re slipping behind other teams.”

It’s old news, yes. But it’s interesting that Keane’s feelings about standing still and simply going through the motions had a continuously negative impact on his playing career. For Ireland and Manchester United, he wanted more. He wanted better. Seemingly, he was willing to sacrifice things – mainly himself – for a greater cause.  

But curiously, as a coach, he’s been remarkably traditional.

He’s never been much of a willing collaborator, effectively what modern management is all about. He’s suspicious of sports science, despite him previously lauding ex-teammates like Ruud van Nistelrooy for prolonging their careers by taking better care of their bodies. Keane still believes players can play to their limits 50 or 60 times per season. He still believes players can get through anything just by gritting their teeth and downing their heads. Sure, there’s a time and place for that. Before the win over Italy at Euro 2016, he spoke of the team needing to play with balls and courage. Fine. Ireland got the win. The country celebrated. It was feel-good stuff.

But dig into more of his comments from that same press conference and there’s a pattern.

“You run and you run and you run . . . you keep going, keep going until the game is over and after the game don’t worry if you’re shattered, we’ll carry you off the pitch,” he said. 

“It’s like a boxer when he gets knocked out; you get back up and start swinging, and hope for the best.”

As coaching philosophies go, it’s akin to a floaty motivational message. It lacks any substance. There is no plan. There is no strategy. Bizarrely, given his background, Keane seems to be suspicious of too much preparation, research and detail.  

Martin O'Neill watches on late in the game Source: James Crombie; ©INPHO/James Crombie/INPHO

And O’Neill is clearly cut from the same cloth, as per Matt Doherty’s remarkable comments on RTE last night.   

“When you were away with Ireland, you didn’t really have that much coaching,” the Wolves wing-back said.  

It was more of five-a-side, or 11-a-side game, and that would be it. You can’t have that, especially at international football, people not really sure on what their role is the next day. The day before a game you would do a few set-pieces here and there and then go into the game. You are kind of thinking to yourself, ‘What shape are we going to play?’ It is bizarre, but it didn’t happen all the time. There were odd occasions when it did happen.”

After the draw with Denmark, O’Neill was asked about the miserable run of form. One win in 11 games. An alarming slide. Grounds not just for concern but the sack. 

He responded by talking about the calibre of opposition in Ireland’s friendly games: Turkey, the United States, Northern Ireland. 

Forever skilled in the art of deflection. 

“If I wanted to go and play some friendly matches that I think that we could win… I’m not into that,” O’Neill replied. 

“If other people want to go and build up their stats in such a manner… that’s never been my doing and we’ve chosen some really difficult friendly matches.”

Again, it was a belittling statement. As if the ‘other people’ – those silly data analysts – had it in for him. The same ‘scientists’ that Keane chastised previously. And that’s been another unsettling pattern throughout the last few years, particularly. When the going got tough, O’Neill didn’t stand firm. His insecurity wouldn’t allow it. Instead, he got prickly, changed the narrative and usually stormed off.

And there’s a bit of that in his departure too.

In recent games, he made a big deal about the young players that he called into his squad. The message was clear: he was doing a good and honourable thing by bringing youngsters into the mix. 

And yesterday, in his official statement, the message was there again. 

“Knowing that the past year would be a transitional phase for the squad, I have capped twelve new players in the last nine games, with the aim that they become significant international contributors in the coming campaign.”

It was an unusual point to make. A weird parting shot. 

The cynics would wonder if the volume of young players that have featured in the last few games was O’Neill’s self-protection at play, his attempt at securing a positive spin for when he was eventually pushed.   

Still, the history books will be kind to him. 

A five-year stint in any modern football job is considerable and he joins a small group of managers who have qualified the Irish side for a major tournament. Overall, the good has outweighed the bad.

He presided over an era of Irish football that conjured some standout moments. But there’s more to management – and legacy – than that. 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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