Back in December of 1995, Carey was a member of a Leicester City side going nowhere in the second tier, when O’Neill — on the back of his success as a fledgling manager with Wycombe Wanderers — was brought in to try to turn around the club’s fortunes. Which, after a tricky start, he did, eventually getting them promoted to the Premiership via the play-offs.
“It really was a remarkable job in the end,” says Carey. “I remember that on his first day, one of the journalists asked him what kind of football he was going to play. And he said, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes, this is a results business.’ People talk about him having a direct style of play but the bottom line is he has a 52% win record in management, which is fantastic.”
Carey recalls the new Ireland boss as an inspirational presence in the build- up to those crucial 90 minutes.
“Martin O’Neill came alive on match days,” he says. “And with him coming alive on match day, the players did the same. He is not really a tracksuit kind of a manager but he’d be out at training and, if it wasn’t up to his standards, you knew he was around. He’d have players train hard but he also knew when to give people a break. All so they would be mentally fresh and giving their all on match day.
“The thing about O’Neill is that he makes things so simple. Like, he’d say to the wide player, ‘if the full back shows you inside, go inside; if he shows you down the line, go down the line’. Or, ‘if you can’t pass the ball, then run with it and drop it off at someone else’s feet who can’. In a way, it just took pressure off people.
“He won’t overburden the players with tactical information. What he will do is play the right player in the right position, once he knows he can do a job. For instance, depending on who you’re playing, he might play a defensive midfielder off the striker knowing he’ll run back because his natural game is to do that. If you go through his teams, he’s always had a footballer in central midfield, next to him someone that can cover the ground, wide players that have good delivery into the box, a big centre-forward like (John) Hartson or (Emile) Heskey, and defenders who can head the ball first and foremost and defend.
“Now, with the Irish team, I think it would be wrong to say that he’ll be definitely looking for a big centre-forward. There’s different ways to skin a cat. Good management is being able to recognise that you can go over them, around them or through them — whatever it takes on the day to beat the opposition. What he’s good at, ultimately, is he gets good players working hard. A lot of people think that’s the secret of good management.”
Carey describes O’Neill as someone with a big personality and strong leadership qualities, someone “very comfortable in his own skin”. And, from his own experience, he offers up one fond memory of the Derry man’s famed man-management skills.
“I remember once where I wasn’t going to be involved in the game on the Saturday,” he recalls. “In training on the Friday, my team was winning, it was late on in the game and I didn’t go up for a corner. And Martin says to me, ‘Brian, are you not going forward for the corner?’ And I said, ‘No, we’re 1-0 up and we don’t want to concede in the last minute.’ So he said, ‘Alright, fine.’ And we won.
“The following day, we report for the game and, even though I wasn’t involved, he called me in, sat me down and said, ‘Listen, I saw what you were doing yesterday, thinking about the game, and it’s great because you’re part of what’s going on here. I’m not putting you on the bench today because I need two centre-forwards on the bench, but I am going to stick you on the win bonus.’
“And it wasn’t about the money — it was the fact he took the time to talk to me and explain his decision. He just had that way about him. He made me feel part of it and I appreciated it.
“The other thing about his man-management style is that he’d walk into the dressing room — and this may go back to Brian Clough because obviously both him and Roy are Clough protégés — and he’d say to one of the lads: ‘Are you up for it today?’ ‘Of course, boss.’ ‘Right, you’re in the team, you’ve made it.’ As simple as that. His style and his way made people feel good about themselves.”
But will Roy Keane feel as good about himself as a number two? As someone who played the assistant’s role to Dean Saunders at Wolves, Doncaster Rovers and Wrexham, Carey — now on the youth coaching staff at Blackburn Rovers — is well-placed to give an insight into the critical nature of the relationship between the top man and his second in command
“Roy will learn so much from Martin O’Neill,” says Carey, who played alongside his fellow Corkman for Ireland, though Brian had just left Manchester United before Keane arrived at Old Trafford. “Roy’s clever enough to recognise Martin O’Neill will lean on him a lot. For example, who better to know what’s going through the minds of the lads in midfield — what’s needed to combat a midfield three, say — than Roy Keane? Who better to have onside?
“Whether Roy will be happy to be a number two — well, I’ve been an assistant myself and to be a good one, I think you have to recognise who is in charge and who’s got the final say. That relationship is very important and I’m sure Roy is clever and experienced enough to know who’s in charge. On a human level, it’s about trusting each other, Roy being Martin’s eyes and ears, if you like, out on the training ground or in the hotel or at training camps. And they’ll be able to bounce off each other. I don’t think Roy’s turning up not to have his say, so I’m sure Martin will get the most out of him.”
Carey also suggests the notion of Keane as a short fuse just waiting to go off is overplayed. “I’ve been in enough Irish squads with him over the years and while I wouldn’t say I know him closely, I’ve always found the guy to be just normal, to be honest. And on the handful of times I’ve met him outside of football, he’s just a guy from Cork that I know, y’know what I mean?
“But with him, I’d say you can’t have one without the other. If you want someone to stand up to Vieira in the tunnel at Highbury, you’re going to get something else that comes with it too. Every team, every footballer would have loved to have him in their side. He’s carried that into management — and did a really good job at Sunderland. Because it didn’t work out at Ipswich, that doesn’t automatically make him a bad manager. That experience will stand to him.
“But what he should really be looking forward to is the opportunity to be alongside Martin O’Neill and getting back involved in the game. I also think they’ll work well together, and if Roy does this properly he could be thinking that, further down the line, if Martin O’Neill steps aside, then he could take over.”