Stan Collymore was 28 and already had half a dozen senior clubs behind him when he played under Martin O’Neill at Leicester City but, even though they only had six months together, the former Liverpool, Aston Villa and England striker has no hesitation in hailing Ireland’s manager as the “biggest influence” in his career.
For Collymore, O’Neill is the kind of inspirational gaffer who can get the best out of players because, having been one himself, the Derry man understands what makes them tick.
“He would have played for a man in Brian Clough who tried to imbue in his players what he wanted them to do,” Collymore said yesterday. “Clough stamped his authority on the Nottingham Forest team in every way: he was insistent his players didn’t get yellow cards, that they shouldn’t shout at the ref and he wanted them to play with the ball on the deck. Martin is more of a pragmatist. At Leicester it was 4-4-2, we worked very hard and worked the percentages beyond that. And if we stayed disciplined, we’d get something.
“But Martin O’Neill, in terms of his methodology, the way he’s prickly on the sideline, the way he wants his team to fight and the way he wants to create a team spirit, isn’t much different to what you see from Guardiola or Conte or Klopp. Now, look, the reality is Pep Guardiola wants his goalkeeper to be another footballer. Martin, I think, would want him to be primarily a good goalkeeper. But Martin would definitely be more that kind of manager than one who sits there with his pen and paper. I was only with Martin for six months but he had the biggest influence on me in a 14-year career because he was honest, straightforward and he didn’t take any bullshit. Not that I gave any but he would have a proper adult conversation with you. You’d be surprised how many managers, when having to deal with 25 guys, will either shy away in their office or delegate someone else to deal with things.
“What he said he wanted for me, he discharged. He said he wanted me to play as a centre-forward, he said he’d get me fit and sharp, and if there was any instruction he felt I needed, he would say it. He always fronted up when he had a conversation with you. And if there was something he couldn’t add, it would be over to his assistants John Robertson or Steve Walford. So they all dovetailed very well.”
The lure of Celtic Park for O’Neill ended his professional relationship with Collymore, who believes the manager was “possibly” saving the outspoken player from himself in not taking him with him to Glasgow, though that’s what the striker wanted.
“When he went to Celtic we spoke and I think he felt that, because of my reputation, being in and around that kind of hotbed in Glasgow wouldn’t have been a very good idea,” Collymore revealed, ironically just days after becoming involved in an Old Firm twitter spat with Joey Barton.
“Now, with social media, we’re anaesthetised to people making comments wherever they are, so at that stage it would have more been what I might say in a post-match press conference. And maybe he was right. But I would have loved to have gone up there and played for him at Celtic.
“I loved him and I could see why players like Neil Lennon, Gerry Taggart, Matty Elliott, Tim Flowers, Tony Cottee at the end of his career and Emile Heskey at the beginning of his, wanted to play for him.
“He was prickly, don’t get me wrong. If he said, ‘me and you are going for pizza around the corner’, you know you’d be in for a long, quiet hour, an awkward hour, but as a manager he was very good.”
Collymore, who was visiting Dublin in his role as Boylesport’s football ambassador, reckons Irish football is lucky to have O’Neill at the helm even at the age of 64.
“I think Martin is ageless in his enthusiasm,” he observed. “I don’t think he’s one of those guys who sits back, puts on the suit and suddenly has a different style of management. You can still see him jumping up and down. And I like the way he has embraced Roy Keane. That could have been a massive wrong move if they’d butted heads, which could have happened, but they obviously worked that out before and during the working relationship.
“Without doubt, I think Ireland have got the right man— someone who’s played in World Cups, won major trophies and who understands international football from a captain’s perspective in the dressing room. And he’s got a guy alongside him that, as long as he keeps him in a role that gives players something rather than just bollocks them — although, occasionally, Keano’s going to have to give bollockings out — then I think it’s a very good mix.
“Particularly because international football is so time-sensitive. When you’ve got 20 players coming in from seven different styles, it’s vital that everyone knows they’re coming into camp with one purpose. And I think that’s one thing Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, as players and managers, do very well.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved