In his time performing miracles at Leicester City, Martin O’Neill was known to remark with a grin to more than one of his players, “I saved you from the mire, you know!”
Muzzy Izzet couldn’t get a game in three years at Chelsea ahead of such modest midfield names as Peacock and Newton, yet O’Neill could see something in him from personally scouting numerous Chelsea reserve games. Within six years Izzet was a Leicester legend, had played in three Wembley finals for O’Neill and a World Cup semi-final for Turkey.
Steve Guppy was picked up from Port Vale and turned into an English international.
Matt Elliott was a journeyman pro plodding away with Oxford City before he transformed into a Fantasy Football phenomenon under O’Neill, scoring multiple goals from centre half, including two in a League Cup final.
At Celtic, Chris Sutton was after a horrendous year at Chelsea but under O’Neill and alongside Henrik Larsson would eclipse the football he’d played alongside Alan Shearer. John Hartson and Alan Thompson were similarly rejuvenated by the O’Neill effect.
O’Neill even gave Stan Collymore another chance, galvanising him to score five goals in 11 games for Leicester before O’Neill departed for Parkhead.
Now it appears O’Neill has trumped them all by his latest choice to save from the mire: Roy Keane.
Keane looked as if his best days in management were already behind him, no one, not even his former club Nottingham Forest, taking a punt on him when they seemed to take a punt on everyone else.
But O’Neill, perhaps from his own experience with Sunderland, appreciates just what Keane achieved in the north-west and clearly believes he remains a coach of huge potential.
Keane obviously was one of the most exceptional captains to ever play the game. But there’s one thing being a leader as a player and another as a manager and coach.
He may have taken his coaching courses and got his badges but it still wasn’t an apprenticeship for the real thing. His charisma and playing knowledge took him relatively far but it could only ever take him so far. You should always be learning in any job but you should only be doing so much learning in certain jobs.
O’Neill learned his trade and learned from his mistakes well away from the glare of Sky and the world — let alone — national media; with Grantham Town, with Shepshed Charterhouse, with Wycombe Wanderers. Keane never had such latitude. He never had a proper apprenticeship. And he never had a proper mentor — until now.
Of course he played under a managerial icon in Alex Ferguson, just as O’Neill played and learned under another in Brian Clough, as did Keane. But it was never from the vantage point of a fellow coach. A few years ago this column wrote that Keane could do with shadowing some top coaches from all around the world, for a few days, taking in the work of someone like Mickey Harte and learning the more subtle arts of the trade.
Now he gets to do that with another masterful coach from the north.
Chances are he’s a more reflective figure and coach now anyway. What made Keane the player and leader so invaluable was his willingness to confront as well as encourage teammates. Winning only gets done by teams with leaders who are not afraid to be unpopular sometimes. It was only when a few senior Dublin players told a manager and a certain talented team-mate that they would not take to the field with that certain talented team-mate unless he changed or was cut that they started winning All-Irelands. The Cork hurling team of the mid-00s had personalities that strong and ruthless. And Ferguson had one in their fellow countymen Keane.
Keane encouraged team-mates too; though it didn’t garner headlines, players from David Beckham to Ben Thornley have talked about how Keane would keep them pepped up with a kind word. There’s a movement called Positive Coaching that claims leaders in sport should practise a ratio of 5:1 in terms of praise to criticism. Frankly, this column finds that a tad high, but the principle’s sound. The problem with Keane towards the end of his time at United — and something Ferguson identified — was that he was too willing to be critical, that he had the ratio the wrong way around. He had similar problems in management, intolerant of players that weren’t as remotely as good as he was.
O’Neill is exceptional at getting players to play above and beyond their current level, which is why he is the perfect manager for the Republic of Ireland; it’s not all X and Os at this level; a lot of coaching is how you make those X and Os feel.
He knows the right praise-to-criticism ratio. We can only hope he knows how to get the best out of that latent talent that is Roy Keane too.