LARRY RYAN: Managing the survival of optimism

Like most of the great survivors in management, Martin O’Neill likes to help the impression form that it is he doing you the favour, writes Larry Ryan

If we expected to hear from a slightly chastened Martin O'Neill this week, a man ready to explain a few things, to charm his way back into our affections, we probably overvalued our affections.

Instead, he came out fighting. Armed, as he saw it, with two killer weapons.

There was the recollection that Tony O’Donoghue said ‘hard luck’ to him the night of the Denmark calamity. 

Not everyone would have a throwaway remark so high up in their dossier of testimonials. But despite coming from someone he appears to detest, O’Neill is carrying around this reflexive greeting as a rich tribute to the World Cup campaign.

Buoyed, in November, by that unexpected validation, O’Neill’s sense of wellbeing must have deepened when he became Stoke City’s second or third choice for a battle against relegation. Proof, he argued this week, that he is doing something right with the Boys in Green.

It needn’t have surprised us to find O’Neill on the front foot in the face of a little flak. He has always backed himself when he feels cornered.

After a defeat by Sheffield United early in his Leicester City reign, thousands of fans demonstrated for him and the board to go, refusing to disperse until O’Neill brought a few inside and set them straight about his plans.

Aged 22, he had a letter published in the Nottingham Evening Post, responding to criticism from the sports editor, who had suggested he be thankful for a Forest career, rather than moan about a place on the bench. 

He wrote: “I am grateful to the club for giving me a chance, but I was ‘plucked’ from law studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, not from the queue at the Labour Exchange.” 

Like most of the great survivors in management, O’Neill likes to help the impression form that it is he doing you the favour. Just as few of his punditry stints have gone on long without some mention of the European Cup medals.

That knack has helped him survive in the game almost as long as Arsene Wenger, the greatest survivor of them all. During Arsenal’s various troughs, Wenger has invariably been good for a casual nod to the many approaches by Barca or United or PSG over the years.

Both men’s durability is impressive at a time when new ways of making a bags of things in management emerge daily.

As O’Neill put it, when he was sacked by Sunderland, “you can nearly lose your job now if your tie doesn’t fit your suit”.

Five years on, Big Sam’s inevitable axe at Everton will probably be traced to the garish red footwear he wore on Sky Sports before Christmas. A man in the metaphorical wrong shoes.

This week alone, we have seen Marco Silva lose one job seemingly for pining over another. Perhaps he pushed the ‘doing you a favour’ vibe a touch far at Vicarage Road.

Meanwhile, Phil Neville is in trouble before he even begins, falling foul of our old friend, the bantz. A bullet O’Neill has dodged already in his Ireland tenure.

There is evidence, in Antonio Conte’s foul demeanour, that even winning will never protect you for long in a place as toxic as Chelsea.

And there is Giggsy, stuck in the blocks like his classmate of ’92, struggling to make a charisma deficit add up to any kind of optimism among the Welsh fans.

“I believe my job is to be an optimist,” Wenger has said, more than once. But in an era of three-year plans and project managers with miracle philosophies, it is nearly impossible to squeeze optimism into a third decade at the same place.

Embarrassed in the cup by Nottingham Forest, adrift of the top four, having dispatched their best player up the motorway to old rivals; this was as deep as any of the Wenger crises.

He would have been killed off on EastEnders, Max Branning from Albert Square reckoned last Wednesday morning on Talksport. It is not a good sign when EastEnders writes you off as a depressing institution that ran out of steam long ago.

And yet, by nightfall, Wenger had somehow done it again, as he always manages — lifted the ennui in the nick of time.

Conte even crosser, another Wembley final, Mkhitaryan’s fragile talent about to be unblocked, Aubameyang firing the imaginations.Arsenal back where they belong; just another two players away.

There is something perplexing yet beautiful about it, the way his players belatedly dig deep to repay his trust in them, having first made a mockery of that optimism. Keeping the cycle of hope and despair going.

If we expected to hear from a slightly chastened Martin O’Neill this week, a man ready to explain a few things, to charm his way back into our affections, we probably overvalued our affections.

Whatever alchemy it is, a top-level football club may require a gradual scaling back of ambition for it to be sustainable long term.

But if Wenger left Arsenal in the morning, the relentlessness of his optimism means he’d be welcome most places where they want to dream, not just survive. He’d probably get his very own three-year project.

It might seem desperately unfair to him, given Ireland’s highs under his watch, but Martin O’Neill is in a different bracket.

He is in among the pragmatists. Relied upon to set you up and keep you tight. He’ll motivate and his players will dig deep for him too. Even if he won’t be unlocking fragile talent. Or trusting it with the ball.

His interest in the law led him to a great fascination with serial killers. “Serial killers were always a bore, in my book,” the late Mark E Smith once said. Whatever floats your boat, but maybe they aren’t a good place to start in the search for optimism.

O’Neill might still be proud that Stoke City called, but when they did it was because all optimism had drained away there. The dreams of post-Pulis sophistication had evaporated. Survival will do for now.

The pragmatists are among the most durable of football’s survivors. But while the Arsenal faithful might fancy a dash of pragmatism with their eternal optimism, Irish football is craving a chance to dream a little.

Denied that, it’s hard to maintain the vibe that Martin is doing us a favour.

Maybe that is why he appears to be so angry at the moment.

Solving the post-match conflict

There is an argument for leaving well enough alone and allowing MON v TOD to enliven an unpromising 2018 international calendar by continuing their entertaining series of spats, the latest of which rivalled anything Ricky Gervais produced in his cringe pomp.

Or should we give peace a chance and disarm the conflict that has gripped the nation? What are the options?

Reappoint Manuela Spinelli

Remember Tony enquiring if Trap wanted to resign after the draw with Austria in 2013? Who really knows what vitriol the Italian had lined up in riposte on his darkest days before diplomatic Manuela stepped in to tone things down. Bring her back as chief negotiator?

Send down Dunphy

Is it really TOD that MON has a problem with? Or is he just an RTÉ proxy for Dunphy, who O’Neill has dismissed as a “failed player”.

Rather than tone this ratings winner down, is it time to kick things up a notch and stage a welterweight contest to put Money v Notorious in the shade. Replace passive aggression with outright aggression. Let’s get it on, baby.

Bring out Keano instead

This could go two ways. A meeting of minds, a cordial celebration of Corkness. A festival of bonhomie.

Cha and Miah for the 21st century. Or, if Ireland lose a game, a Leeside civil war to put the GAA strikes in the ha’penny place.


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