Martin O’Neill’s biggest task? To show he can adapt

Martin O’Neill doesn’t move much. As he spoke for the first time as Nottingham Forest manager, an appointment 26 years in the making, he kept pretty still, occasionally bringing his hands up to his face but with nothing much more flamboyant than that, his mouth with a vague hint of a smile but no more.

Martin O’Neill’s biggest task? To show he can adapt

Martin O’Neill doesn’t move much. As he spoke for the first time as Nottingham Forest manager, an appointment 26 years in the making, he kept pretty still, occasionally bringing his hands up to his face but with nothing much more flamboyant than that, his mouth with a vague hint of a smile but no more.

Back in work barely two months after leaving the Ireland job, this seemed like the same old O’Neill. But a more relaxed version.

Taciturn, but with a wry quip here and there, obliging the crowd of journalists with a couple of anecdotes about Brian Clough because he knew he really had to, like the Eagles knowing they wouldn’t get away without playing ‘Hotel California’.

He was enthusiastic, in his own way, about taking this job he’s sometimes seemed destined for.

About managing the club where he made his name as a player, where he won two European Cups under Clough.

About the realities of the modern game and how he must get working in short order if he’s to take Forest back to the top flight for the first time since 1999.

In fact, the only times when he clammed up slightly were, well, when discussing his last position.

You would hesitate before saying he appeared scarred by the Ireland experience, by his departure some 11 months after signing a new contract, by the failing results, by the friction between Roy Keane and more than one player.

But while you felt he could talk for hours about Forest, when fielding questions about the Ireland job he was much more reluctant.

Perhaps because he wanted simply to look forward, but perhaps because the experience was still a little raw.

“I wouldn’t even be talking about this now,” he said, when asked if he was disappointed that the FAI initiated the conversation about ending his tenure. “I am here now to do this particular thing and that’s where I’m going.”

That was that.

When asked if he felt the criticism of his latter days in charge was harsh, he initially indicated he didn’t wish to discuss it, before embarking on a defence of his tenure, emphasising the positives and that Ireland were only a single game from qualifying for the World Cup.

He didn’t mention that ‘single game’ was the meltdown against Denmark, nor did he wax lyrical on the desperate Nations League campaign. But, then again, you wouldn’t expect him to.

Perhaps more interesting was trying to read between the lines of his words about whether the Ireland job, and more specifically how it ended, has changed him as a manager.

One frequent criticism about the latter-day O’Neill is that his methods, his reliance on motivation and what we’ll call a ‘hands off’ approach to everyday coaching, are no longer relevant in the modern game. The charge was he hasn’t changed much while the game has around him.

But while there was a slightly resigned riff about the inability of young players these days to take criticism, O’Neill did claim he had changed.

“I have to talked to some of players I’ve dealt with over the years and I think I’ve changed and adapted, and adjusted,” he said. “You have to adjust. You try to deal with players on an individual basis. If I can learn from that and believe encouragement will help them rather than criticism, then so be it. You have to adapt and I believe I have done.”

And yet, the insistence he wishes to bring Keane back to be his assistant suggests he has not adapted dramatically.

By the end, Keane causing arguments with assorted members of the Ireland squad at best neutralised whatever good, motivational qualities he had, at worst were actively harmful.

Perhaps his methods can still succeed with Forest where they ultimately failed with Ireland.

Perhaps he just needs something new, somewhere he might be more welcome.

One of O’Neill’s final statements as Ireland manager was to promise qualification for the 2020 European Championships.

The reason? “Because I’m good,” he said, simply. He was gone a month later so never really had chance to prove whether that was still the case.

He has that chance now.

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