For the majority, it almost goes without saying, the strangest thing about Martin O’Neill’s appointment as the manager of Ireland is his choice of assistant.
But not for Martin O’Neill. For him – a manager who has always stressed that he is in the results business – the strangest thing is that he will have to wait ten months from his appointment before his team is actually playing for points.
He had touched on the subject at his grand unveiling in the Gibson Hotel in Dublin on Saturday and later returned to it over an informal cup of coffee with a small group of journalists, saying he perhaps hadn’t emphasised enough just how unprecedented this new experience is for him.
One immediately evident consequence of the protracted run-in to his competitive debut was that O’Neill wasn’t prepared to give any hostages to fortune on the subject of how central he envisaged veteran figures like Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne would be to his future plans.
“It’s a very good point,” he said. “Of course by the time that we play our first qualifying game we are nearly nine or ten months on. So lots of things can happen at that stage. Robbie, as each year goes on, is getting a bit older. Richard Dunne has done remarkably well considering that probably this time last year he thought he would never play football again.
“One of the things I have to genuinely consider is that little bit of luck — that when it finally comes round to the day you actually play the game, you have to have your best players available. That helps a great deal and that’s in the lap of the gods at times. So I don’t really know, that’s a year on, I really would not know that position.”
One thing he is clear about is his intention to see out the initial two years of his deal — and, hopefully, beyond. The Derry man confirmed that there is no ‘get-out’ clause in his contract should a club come a-calling – but does the same, he was asked, apply to Roy Keane?
“I am taking Roy absolutely on trust here, and he wants to complete it as well,” O’ Neill replied. “Maybe I’m speaking for him but I’ve got complete trust in Roy that that’s what he wants to do. I don’t think he’s wishing to run out at the drop of a hat. I think he’s appreciative of the opportunity that this is affording him and I think it’s up to him then to push on. And that’s what I expect. I have the two years and I think that is right. If I don’t make it (to Euro 2016), I don’t deserve to go on. I said the same to Roy: that if I make a mess of it, he goes with me, no staying on.”
O’Neill conceded that nominating Keane was not the most “straightforward” choice he might have made.
“But then again, it’s part of the fun bringing him along,” he said, adding with a grin, “I hope I’m saying that in another six months’ time.”
The Derry man had earlier indicated that he didn’t want to change Keane but, by the same token, he’s clearly hoping that his assistant can evolve to meet the demands of his new job. When I asked if, for example, O’ Neill would deem it prudent to limit Keane’s interaction with ‘the suits’, this was the manager’s initially hesitant reply:
“No, I’m hoping the relationship will develop in such a way that Roy…I’m hoping that he will be able to, for want of a better word, expand and grow into some things that he might not really have been that bothered about before. That’s what I hope will develop. But if Roy is really uncomfortable with something, then I’ll handle that, not a problem.
“I think (the role) will be a change for him and it’s something that we have discussed — it was a very obvious discussion — and while it will be a change for him, he is accepting it, he wants to pick up and hopefully learn some things, if that’s at all possible. I don’t want to sound like a teacher but I think that this is what he wants to do.”
Will he ask Keane to temper his words?
“That might be top of the agenda with my next meeting with him,” he smiled. “I think Roy himself has grown since his time in management. He’s had a wee bit of time to reflect. I think he will feel that he might have attacked certain things a wee bit differently but again, I don’t want Roy to lose all those things that make him endearing to you. I use that word advisedly. But seriously, those things that make him big, big news. The lads here with him at Sunderland” — points to some visiting journos from Wearside – “they will tell you: he scared the crap out of you, didn’t he?”
O’Neill might be quick to use humour to defuse the more controversial aspects of his selection of Keane, but he is entirely serious when it comes to outlining how he hopes the pair will work together for the betterment of the Irish team.
“First of all we will confide in each other regarding what we consider the best team, I can see that sort of role,” he explained. “John Robertson played that role with me. John would have an input but eventually it would be my decision.
“I can see Roy getting involved with the players, that will be important. The younger players obviously will look up to him for a start. But that sort of thing can wear off. I actually believe Roy wants to integrate with the players and this is where I think, on a one to one basis with the players, he will be excellent. That is where initially I see this in the very short term. Obviously when we get the two games out of the way, we will have a wee bit of experience about ourselves and try to formulate a proper plan on the way through from there on.”
O’Neill said that, in principle, he has no objection to Keane continuing his ITV punditry work if that’s what he wants – and, for his own part, the manager added that, if an offer came along, he would consider doing TV work himself at the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
More immediately, O’Neill confirmed that, ahead of Friday’s game against Latvia, he will take charge of the coaching, before finalising his backroom team at a later stage. Seamus McDonagh has already replaced Alan Kelly as goalkeeping coach, and while O’ Neill’s long-time associate Steve Walford has been strongly linked with a post, it has emerged that there may yet too be a role, perhaps in a scouting capacity, for the Derry man’s former assistant and close confidante John Robertson, who is recovering well after a health scare.
For his first outings against Latvia and Poland, O’Neill is pondering using as many players as possible. “Having asked the players to come this far for two friendly fixtures, I might show a wee bit of leniency and look at changing things around from game to game,” he mused.
There might still be a long way to go before the really meaningful stuff kicks off – on the pitch at least — but, after all the talk, it will finally be down to business for Martin O’ Neill when he takes his first training session with the Ireland squad in Malahide tomorrow.
Followed, in turn, by even more talk – Roy Keane’s eagerly-awaited first press conference as assistant manager — is scheduled for Wednesday.
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