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Dublin: 5 °C Wednesday 27 March, 2019

O'Neill and Keane would be a good fit for Forest but their loyalty to Clough might cost them

The Championship club are searching for another new manager, and the former Irish duo would be a good choice.

Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane ahead of Ireland's Uefa Nations League game against Wales at the Aviva Stadium.
Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane ahead of Ireland's Uefa Nations League game against Wales at the Aviva Stadium.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT’S THAT TIME of the month: Nottingham Forest are looking for a new manager. Aitor Karanka was fired this morning, meaning the club are hiring for the eighth time in three years. Slavisa Jokanovic is the early favourite to take the job, although ousted Ireland duo Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane are also thought to be in contention for a return to their former side.

O’Neill wants to work again; Keane is open to working with him.

It would be an ideal role for both. Having missed out on the Stoke job last year, and subsequently presiding over a wretched run of form with Ireland, O’Neill’s only real avenue back to the Premier League is via promotion from the Championship.

He no longer ranks among the likes of of Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis, Mark Hughes and Roy Hodgson in the retinue of Managers To Call Mid-Season Solely To Avoid Relegation, and nor is he a kind of longer-term, holistic manager that has been favoured by some clubs of late, Marco Silva and Ralph Hasenhuttl being two such examples.

If O’Neill wants to reinvent himself into the latter category, he won’t be helped by revelations from an interview his former Villa boss Randy Lerner granted to Josh Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, authors of a new book on the history of the Premier League called The Club.

Lerner claims that O’Neill would have been unaware that Villa had an academy had it not been beside the first-team training ground, and the owner eventually became exasperated by O’Neill’s demands to sign experienced British players with little resale value. When Lerner told O’Neill he was tightening the purse strings, the manager eventually walked out.

That shouldn’t really matter at Forest.

While the Lerner revelations portray O’Neill to be anything but a long-term manager, there appears to be no such thing as a long-term manager at Nottingham Forest. Since Billy Davies left in June 2011, only three of the 12 subsequent permanent appointments were in charge for more than 50 games…and one of them was Billy Davies.

Although Karanka was evidently not impressing Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis, the club have not been left hopelessly marooned: they are seventh in the Championship, just one place and four points outside the play-off positions.

Given that Forest’s ambition is solely to be promoted after a summer outlay of £23 million, a refreshed O’Neill, with his immediate-term powers of motivation, should make him an attractive candidate. He would also be well-acquainted with the division, given the lousy reality that any Irish manager must be.

Beyond such cold pragmatism, the fact that the job is at Forest would hold mighty sway over O’Neill and Roy Keane. Both had formative experiences under Brian Clough at the club, and the latter has plainly stated that Clough was the best manager he worked under (although this was perhaps at least partly motivated by a grudge against Alex Ferguson).

O’Neill’s reverence for Clough hardly needs to be repeated, as the ghost of his former mentor staked most of his reign with Ireland.

The question for O’Neill is whether his reputation endures the ugly endgame with Ireland.

Although Clough and O’Neill had a complicated relationship – “’Clough would be the only person who could chop Martin O’Neill down to size” author Daniel Taylor told The42 in 2015 – O’Neill has paid homage to Clough’s “magical” powers of motivation and tooled himself with them.

Soccer - European Cup Final - Nottingham Forest v SV Hamburg Martin O'Neill playing for Forest in the 1980 European Cup final, against Hamburg. Source: EMPICS Sport

In the final year with Ireland, however, it seemed that O’Neill had lost the line dividing inspiration and plagiarism and at times seemed to be doing a bad impression of Clough’s famous self-regard. “Because I’m good” was his justification for a promise to qualify for Euro 2020 last October.

As his Irish reign entered an inexorable slide, O’Neill seemed incapable of snapping out of this image he had modelled for himself, with damaging training ground rows seemingly tolerated and superannuated principles, like the naming teams just before a game with little tactical instruction, blithely followed.

The ghost of Clough became all-consuming as O’Neill tried to wrestle with the limitations of his squad and the intensity of media criticism, to the point that the profusion of Clough anecdotes trotted out by the Irish manager had all the meaning and inspiration of Theresa May mumbling ‘strong and stable’.

Since leaving the Irish job, O’Neill told The Times that nobody should consider him to be a dinosaur, but his fidelity to his legendary boss has seen him harden into that exact image, comparing unfavourably to the young, dynamic and empathetic managers of Wales, England and Northern Ireland.

The great irony is that  O’Neill would be a good candidate to take charge right now at Nottingham Forest, but he may be deprived of the opportunity to finally succeed Brian Clough as a result of his too successful effort to emulate him.

Ahead of a huge weekend of Heineken Champions Cup action, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey assess the provinces’ chances of putting a foot in the last eight:

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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