Resplendent in the red of Nottingham Forest and the 70s footballer’s barnet du jour — a luxurious perm — a preposterously youthful Martin O’Neill adorns the cover of the latest issue of retro football mag ‘Backpass’.
‘Backpass’ is to old football farts, such as myself, what ‘Mojo’ is to old music farts such as, well, myself, so I was indecently pleased to see O’Neill conclude an entertaining reminiscence about the glory days of Brian Clough at the City Ground with a revealing admission.
“If I could change my life and you asked me what I’d do, I’d pick up the guitar and join The Who, but outside of that, no, change nothing. Or maybe the Small Faces, the Kinks…”
Ah, that sets the old interior jukebox aglow, right enough: the sunshine bounce of ‘Itchycoo Park’ followed by the delicate beauty of ‘Waterloo Sunset’ before the mind is blown — blown, I tell you — by ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, The Who’s ferocious counter-revolutionary anthem, the one containing the line: ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…’
Which is as handy a way as any to bring things bang up to date in the career which Martin O’Neill did choose to follow.
Despite Ireland’s still healthy position in World Cup qualifying, there were plenty of knives out for the manager after the 1-1 draw with Austria, the complaints mainly directed at Wes Hoolahan’s omission from the starting line-up and what was perceived to be a related reversion to a crude long ball game, a hapless strategy which played into the visitors’ hands and, though badly depleted by injury, made them at times look like Brazil to our Wimbledon – sorry, I’m still under the retro spell — until spirits were finally lifted by Jon Walters’ superb equaliser and a madcap finish which might even have yielded an unlikely victory.
Afterwards, the old boss being invoked by many was, of course, Jack Charlton, who came into the Irish job with a core insight gleaned from watching the 1986 World Cup: “We can’t beat them at their game so we’ll have to beat them at ours.”
Or, at least, not lose against them.
That, after all, is how Ireland managed the bizarre feat of scaling what is still the highest peak in the nation’s football history — the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup — without actually winning a game in the tournament in Italy. This was the nub of it: Charlton’s approach yielded unprecedented success for Irish football but it also established a template for a high-ball, low-risk style of play which has never quite gone away, as witness its latest manifestation at the Aviva last Sunday.
One of the great imponderables is whether Ireland under Charlton might have had as much success — or more, or less — had he been prepared to give the players he had at his disposal the freedom to fully express their obvious talents within a more expansive style of play. To be fair to Martin O’Neill — and meaning no insult to the players in his own squad — but you can only imagine what the current manager, or any manager for that matter, would give to have Liam Brady, Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, David O’ Leary, Mark Lawrenson, Kevin Moran, Frank Stapleton, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge, Denis Irwin, and Roy Keane — to name but a few — on call.
He does, of course, have Hoolahan, by common consent the most creative player available to him, but even though the manager has used him far more than his predecessors, the playmaker has never been so central to O’Neill’s thinking that he is the guaranteed starter many of his admirers would like him to be.
Doubts have been expressed about Hoolahan’s age, physicality and stamina but I suspect Liam Brady was closer to the mark when he wrote in his column here last week that O’Neill must harbour a fundamental fear that, by playing through the middle and so endeavouring to make the most of what Hoolahan has to offer, his team would run the risk of an intercepted or misplaced pass leaving themselves open to a wounding counter-attack by teams altogether better versed in high-tempo pass and move.
But while we are entitled to have reservations about the method, it would still be grossly unfair to underestimate what O’Neill has achieved in his time in charge. Giovanni Trapattoni had already learned to his cost the difficulty of rebuilding a team which had either lost or seen go into decline such influential figures as Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne. To take a falling side from the low of Euro 2012 and a subsequent failed World Cup campaign which saw them beaten 6-1 at home by Germany to, within one campaign, beating the World Champions at home and drawing with them away, beating Bosnia in a play-off and beating Italy at the Euro finals, reflects huge credit on the Derryman.
And, if not always the football, then the results certainly continue to flow in the World Cup qualifiers. Back to back home draws might have worryingly stalled momentum but the heavy lifting done in the first half of the campaign, culminating in that memorable 1-0 win in Vienna, means Ireland are still firmly on course to make it successive qualifications for Euro and World finals for the first time since 1988 and 1990.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? We shall see.