A couple of months after Martin O’Neill took a sabbatical from football management to help look after his then ill wife Geraldine, this writer interviewed someone who had played minor inter-county Gaelic football with one of O’Neill’s great foot soldiers at Parkhead, Neil Lennon.
Kieran McGeeney was in a particularly expansive mood ahead of the 2005 Ulster final, talking about everything from the benefits of taking up yoga to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins to why he liked Any Given Sunday so much.
What resonated most with him about Oliver Stone’s film wasn’t the renowned Inches speech which his team famously adopted and popularised before it would become so clichéd: it was that by the end of the film its central figure, Al Pacino’s Tony D’Amoto, had changed. The cent had dropped with him: what had won and worked for him in the past was no longer winning and working.
Watching a proud and embattled O’Neill this past while has reminded us quite a bit of Pacino’s D’Amato. His tetchy interactions with the media, though he’s stopped short of barging Tony O’Donoghue or any reporter to the ground the way John C McGinley’s Jack Rose was sent crashing.
His defiant reminders of his track record, just like D’Amato, cigar in mouth, would hold up the championship ring on his finger to his sceptical team owner Cameron Diaz and tell her “Win one.” Because honours are not easily won.
As O’Neill would point out to O’Donoghue and the nation in the post-match interview last week, this level of sport is tough. It’s tough to win while losing is the toughest of all.
Right now the management of the Irish national football team requires change. A new leadership style is required.
In an ideal world that would involve Martin O’Neill changing, evolving, learning, adapting, like D’Amato did in the movies. With all he’s done for Ireland and in the game, he deserves the chance to be asked if he’s willing to change, and if he suitably outlines that he is, then he should be retained.
But the study of leadership shows that most leaders tend to be fixed in their ways. And if O’Neill, as could be the case, resents even being asked the question, then he is no longer the man for the job.
Because we’ve seen that movie too. After the disappointing Euro 2012, Giovanni Trapattoni’s failure to tweak his methods led to stagnation and regression in his third qualification campaign. O’Neill, as much as the team and the country, should be spared the pattern repeating itself.
Right now, the similarities between O’Neill and Trapattoni are worrying. Watching how ill-prepared Ireland looked when they fell 2-1 behind last Wednesday echoed Trapattoni’s haplessness at Euro 2012 when Ireland trailed so early in every game.
At the time Trap’s response was pretty much, “Hey, what could I do? Our game plan went out the window when we went a goal down.” All the other top coaches working in this country are prepared for such situations. ‘Scenario planning’ they call it. The Irish boxers do it. The Irish rugby team do it. The Dublin footballers do it.
The morning after the Denmark game in the Aviva, I interviewed Jason Sherlock for an piece appearing in this paper next Saturday. He spoke about the hard lessons of the noughties Dublin and he endured as a player. How their approach was too emotionally laden. “Did we have the tactical nuance to understand what to do when we were six points up or when we were a few points down? We probably didn’t.” Repeatedly throughout this campaign Ireland have looked a team without such plans, without a process, when confronted by any situation when the score hasn’t been 0-0.
It comes down to a word so many elite coaches and athletes use and journalists despise, probably because as often as they hear it, they still don’t get what it means: Process. Stick to doing the right things, best practice, best preparation, and the result takes care of itself.
That is not how soccer operates in this country, that is not how the national team operates.
And so, in being so in thrall to the outcome and “the result is all that matters”, we compromise our chances of getting that outcome and result we all desire.
It’s too easy to say it’s too easy to knock O’Neill on one result. It wasn’t a one-off. It was faulty process catching up on him, Ireland, and the FAI.
The players only learn the team an hour or two before kick-off, something this column has written before flies in the face of all known research on optimal peak performance, creating unnecessary ambiguity and over-anxiety. Bad practice, bad process.
Pete Carroll, SuperBowl-winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks, has a mantra: Practice is Everything. “How we practice makes just as important a statement about who we are as how we play the games,” he wrote in Win Forever.
“Practice is something we want to be the best at for its own sake.” Joe Schmidt has a similar outlook, once saying the only way you should know it’s training is because of the gear the players are wearing.
Anyone who has sat in and observed an Irish national soccer training session can hardly vouch it’s treated it like it’s everything.
Even allowing for how limited a window it is and how the players can’t go at the same intensity as Schmidt’s or Carroll’s players can, can anyone truthfully say an O’Neill session is better-designed and more soundly-based than any other team in Ireland’s qualification group? If not, then we’re cheating process, and deservedly not getting the results we’d want.
The issue long predates O’Neill. Last year at a coaching conference at the English FA’s St George’s Park, Lee Carsley, who works with England’s progressive underage squads, spoke about how he developed as a player at Derby when they were a top-10 Premiership club. To keep his place on the team he reckoned he would have to make 50 to 60 passes a game, having an accuracy rate of 70 to 90%.
And so four times a week before training he would go out onto the field and hit a hundred passes. But with Ireland, his preparation was completely thrown off. There was no culture of staying on and doing more. “It was just straight back onto the bus.”
Which raises another issue. Just how responsible should the manager of the international team be for the skill development of players that he does or could operate with?
In interviews to publicise his new autobiography, Eoin Hand has spoken about how he remembers Jock Stein at an international coaching conference rubbishing the notion:
“Either thay can play or thay canna’ play!” And maybe back then, Scotland could look at it like that. Even Ireland, with players like Brady, Lawrenson, and Stapleton, could look at it like that, and prioritise tactics. But now? Can we?
For five successive campaigns now we’ve had managers speak publicly about even mid-tier opponents being “technically superior” to us.
That can’t continue. A Jim McGuinness would never have spoken that way about or to his players even if privately he felt Kerry and Dublin were technically superior.
Not just because it would have been self-serving, giving himself an out but because it would perpetuate the players’ current self-image and skill level.
Fine if Ireland are not able to playing a passing game — at this moment. But coaching is about getting players to do something they once couldn’t. In Pat Lam’s first year at Connacht, they couldn’t pass like a top team. But by year two they could. Because he pushed them. He pushed himself.
Last week when the bookies listed possible candidates to succeed O’Neill, one name jumped out: McGuinness, at 33/1. It’s too early for him; he hasn’t earned it yet. But would he make a brilliant assistant? A brilliant addition to the new setup? Undoubtedly.
He’s hungry. He’s a coach. Donegal’s style of play, especially in 2011, may not have been aesthetically pleasing but you could not dispute they were brilliantly coached and versed in that style of play. Football commentators tend to be overly-fixated with WHAT a coach coaches rather than HOW he coaches.
You could see a McGuinness planning multiple scenarios like a Sherlock or Schmidt. Sitting a player down to see how he could be a better player in a year, for both club and country. How he’d be willing to drive all along the M1 and meet a reserve player to work on his crossing outside club training instead of the traditional practice of taking in a match of his. Don’t just judge the player — coach him.
All this though is about more than O’Neill. It’s the FAI, it’s John Delaney. While their offices are based out in Abbotstown, do they think along the lines of high performance culture elsewhere on the sports campus? Do they get process?
By right it should be Ruud Dokter and not Delaney and the board who O’Neill should be sitting down with to review this past qualifying campaign and his position. But whoever meets O’Neill, it comes down to this: change, Martin, or else we need a change of manager.
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