The Derryman is determined to regain Paradise after deciding that he couldn’t allow the painful World Cup play off defeat to Denmark to be his last act as Ireland manager, writes
The Martin O’Neill before me on this bright summer’s afternoon in Cork is far removed from the dispirited, deflated, and tetchy figure of Irish football’s winter of discontent.
A bundle of energy and enthusiasm, this is more like the Martin O’Neill you see on the touchline at the height of the battle. Literally.
We’re not long into the interview before Ireland’s manager is pushing back his chair and rising to his feet to give an animated demonstration of one way he believes midfielders can “deal better with the ball”, as he always likes to put it.
“So the ball’s coming to you,” he says, physically acting out the play, “now, instead of cramping up and playing it back the way it came — it doesn’t matter if you’re a defensive or an attacking midfielder — be confident and comfortable enough to just have a wee quick look around to see the position. Because now you have a picture in your head of where you’re going to play it next...”
The words continue to flow as he sits back down and reaches for a handy hotel pen and sheet of paper.
“And here’s another point I wanted to show. Right. OK…”
He scribbles a quick sketch of one half of a pitch.
“The wide man gets the ball here,” he says, applying a heavy black dot on the right flank, “a position I know well. Now, maybe someone comes on the outside of me. But maybe not, so now I’m desperate to see someone come into this position. (Indicates a striker coming short at the edge of the box.) I used to despair when I’d pick it up here and see all the boys trudging to the back post. But if, say, Shane Long comes here, I can play it to him, I can go round the back, he can play me in here, and I can whip it in. Or maybe he can get turned himself. Or he can play it inside to someone…”
He’s on a roll now, the pen adding more dots and arrows to the page. “And that’s another thing, we should be getting more people into the penalty box…”
The mini coaching seminar had been prompted by a question about what Ireland need to do to be better in possession, more composed and constructive, and what the management team can do on the training pitch to help effect that improvement. And, as often happens in football talk with Martin O’Neill, it’s not long before he is invoking his great Nottingham Forest mentor, Brian Clough.
“He was the most complicated character in the world but he preached simplicity,” says O’Neill.
You wouldn’t believe how simple. A masterful coach, even though he got this reputation of never coaching. But when he came to the training ground, he’d make a point to you and you’d remember it forever.
O’Neill, it seems, believes in the value of a similar less-is-more approach.
“I do talk to my staff about what I want to do but I don’t want the players to hear me every single minute so that, come match day, it’s ‘oh no, it’s his voice again’,” he says. “But it’s essential we master certain things if we’re going to improve. If we can get midfield players to dominate a game then we can play more expansively. But we’ve got to be able to deal with the ball. And, while this is a process, I do believe that even with the limited time that we have, I can help some of the players try and do that.
“So these are things I think we can improve on: Midfield players dominating a game by being proper midfield players, and wide players having more alternatives and a better picture when they look up. There’s nothing wrong with sending it up the channel if you’ve got someone running into it but there’s nothing more aimless if your centre-forward is on the other side of the pitch. Those are things we can certainly encourage and improve.”
While Ireland have chalked up a number of seismic qualification victories under O’Neill — from beating Germany at home to beating Austria and Wales away — the Euro 2016 finals in France were notable for games in which, at times, the ambition and quality of the team’s football also commanded attention.
“Two very different types of competition,” observes O’Neill. “There’s the getting there, the trying to get there, which is a slog. But when you do get there, you can throw off the shackles and go and play.
Tournament football is about getting that wee bit of respect because you’re already there, and the other team, no matter how good they are, will like to keep it and pass it around a wee bit. And that gives time to you to get back in again because they don’t press you as much.
“At the Euros, I thought we played great against Sweden, we were obviously well beaten by a top-class Belgian side, and I thought we really tried to go for it against Italy. And if we’d had an extra day or two to prepare for France — and don’t get me wrong, they should have gone on to win the competition — but, you never know, it might have gone to 2-2 or penalties.
“But asking us to go and be expansive against Serbia in Belgrade? I think that’s asking a lot for us to do that because the more technically gifted players will eventually do you.”
Before I can even mention the war, O’Neill gets there first, citing the obvious and punishing example of the Danish pasting at the Aviva on a night last November when the manager accepts his substitutions left Ireland “physically weakened” and “exposed”, but feels he had no other option but “to throw caution to the wind”. The crushing disappointment of that World Cup play-off exit prompted a prolonged period of soul-searching for O’Neill which, at one point in the New Year, looked almost certain to end with his leaving the Irish job to take over at Stoke City.
“It’s the length of time that you have to think about it, that’s the difference between international management and club management,” he reflects. “Even if you’ve won a competition at club level, you have a couple of weeks to think ‘oh, I hope the next season never starts so I can bask in this glory’, but then it comes round pretty quickly. But international football does not come around that quickly. So if you had time to feel glorious at the Euros for a while, that was a millisecond by comparison to the length of time you had to stew after Denmark. And it’s my nature to brood like that.
“I was getting the Stoke job on what I’d done at club level, obviously, but more interestingly on what I’d done at international level. So there were people who looked at the Danish result and thought, ‘that can happen’. But I didn’t look at it like that. I was really disappointed to lose that game the way we did, when we’d done a lot of hard work to get there and even taken the lead at the Aviva.”
Was O’Neill taken aback by the volume of criticism which came his way following the 5-1 defeat?
I don’t think you could imagine any manager, good, bad, or indifferent, not being affected by criticism. I mean, please don’t go into this game if you’re not going to accept criticism. Do not be a manager if you think it’s going to be all nice and rosy, and if you lose the game it’s the players’ fault.
Nevertheless, he says what particularly struck him about the criticism after Denmark was that it was “as if the Euros had never existed, as if the results leading up the game hadn’t happened, as if we’d been a first-seed team beaten by a nondescript side. But, at the end of it all, in my mind the part of coming back and not taking the Stoke job was as much to do with: did I want that to be the last result of my time here? If I’d left after Euro 2016, to have been the manager of the Republic of Ireland with all those crowds coming to France (would have been different). To not have that in Russia was, honestly, a big disappointment.”
O’Neill has his sights set on leading Ireland to the finals of Euro 2020. It’s well known he is well read but, still, his way of summing up his journey out of the darkness with Ireland and, hopefully, back into the light, is as far from standard ‘bantz’ as you could get.
“If I can draw a horrible, hopeless analogy,” he offers with a sheepish grin, “it’s a bit like Paradise Lost. Lucifer has been sent down to Hell, he’s lost the battle in Heaven. And he looks around and sees the people and he thinks, ‘I’ve got to get up again, I’ll have to devise another plan to get back up there to Heaven and get my place back’. And in international football that does take time — from November you don’t have a game until March and even that’s a friendly. It’s part of my nature to brood but the point is you cannot stay down forever. You have to get up and fight.”