Entering the field of dreams

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and captain Robbie Keane walk onto the pitch at the Aviva Stadium last night. Picture: PA

Like every manager who has ever gone before him, Martin O’Neill is well aware that these are the good times.

These are the halcyon days before a ball has been kicked and everyone feels entitled to dream, not least the 35,000 to 40,000 supporters expected at the Aviva Stadium tonight for a friendly against Latvia which, with the arrival of the new Irish management team, has suddenly been transformed into a grand occasion.

Yesterday, O’Neill told a little tale to illustrate the point.

“Bobby (Ward), who is head of security, has been looking after me for the last few days. I said to him, ‘I don’t want you looking after me now Bobby, everything’s fine. It’s after we lose a few games that you should be looking after me’. He looked at me like you’re looking at me now. It’s been great, it’s been absolutely fine, but I’m well aware that this is the 10-minute honeymoon you get.”

In fact, if you were to suggest that this all feels a bit like a club pre-season, the new manager of Ireland wouldn’t disagree — though he would be at pains to stress that, especially when it’s a new club, the importance of a good pre-season is not to be underestimated.

“I don’t want the players to treat these like friendly games,” he said. “I told them that last night. These are very, very important. If I was going into a club for the first time, and the first time I was meeting the players was in pre-season, then pre-season became very important. They became big games, because I have to make judgments on players. That’s exactly how I see these games coming up. They may not be competitive in terms of picking up points, but they are very important.”

As is his wont, O’Neill had plenty to say at his pre-match press conference yet he still managed to give precious little away about his team selection and tactics for his first game in charge.

“Results are obviously important, it would be nice to get off to a good start, nice to win some football matches,” he said. “But there will be an element of experimentation as well. I would like to give those who don’t play tomorrow night some time in Poland as well, so it’s a matter of maybe putting those thoughts together.

“The overriding theme at the moment — I think we have mentioned this, I don’t think it would be giving away too many secrets — is that I would like us to try to press reasonably high up the pitch if we can do. And if we can win the ball closer to their goal, it will give some of our ball players that opportunity to be closer to doing that. It’s a great thought in theory, maybe a different thing totally in practice, but hopefully we will try to get some enjoyment out of it.

“For me, the best enjoyment is to go to win the game, but we will try to play with a bit of drive, enthusiasm, determination, all the things I am hoping you would expect from the side.”

For all that his debut outing as the Ireland manager carries obvious significance, O’Neill is not expecting anything too definitive to emerge from the night’s proceedings in terms of his long-term plans.

“I will mix and match at the moment,” he said. “It’s like anything, it might be a different story completely if this was the first competitive game and even then, let me be honest, I might not even know the best 11 here. These months will give me that opportunity and by the time we come to September, inevitably there will be some changes. There might be one or two young players come through who none of us in this room might have heard about. It might be fantastic. There might be one or two very important players who might be injured. So I have to take those things into consideration as time goes on.”

But some things in football, he made clear, never change.

“I know the game seems to be just full of stats nowadays,” he reflected. “You know, stats for passing, stats for picking your nose or something they say at the end of the day. The important stats are actually scoring goals. And the more opportunities that are in around the penalty area, if there is an opportunity to shoot, then that’s something that I would be encouraging. Which I think is nearly natural but sometimes it’s missed out.”

Sitting beside his new manager, Robbie Keane made all the positive noises you would expect about the new regime but O’Neill was also pleased the captain declined to make unfavourable comparisons with the managerial era which ended in September.

Not, of course, that such magnanimity prevented O’Neill from having one more little dig at a certain other Italian gaffer.

“I left a club and some player was interviewed and said the manager had his favourites,” he recalled. “Yes, I did, they were generally the best players (laughter). Trapattoni did brilliantly, he’s been a great manager all his life. Slightly better than Di Canio (laughter). It’s never been bothering me that. Like you wouldn’t believe! Sorry. It’s grand now. That was just to make you laugh...”

Putting his serious hat back on, O’Neill finally laid his credentials on the line.

“The buck lies with me,” he declared “And so, whatever happens in that field, it’s my responsibility. My influence will be trying to get players to perform, one, the way they’re performing for their clubs and, two, if I could get anything extra out of there, that would be fantastic.”

And now, it’s time for the football to do the talking.

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