O’neill’s style shows what international football is all about
Republic of Ireland manager thinks in outcomes, not artistic merit, and that’s why their World Cup dream is still alive
Martin O’neill was once asked by a director what he planned to do with the club’s promising crop of “kids” in the coming season. The Republic of Ireland’s manager produced an answer with a tinge of Brian Clough: “Send them to Alton Towers?”
Over dinner one night in London, O’neill explained the point he had been trying to make. Throwing a bunch of talented teens into his team would probably cost him his job as soon as results deteriorated. He was not anti-youth so much as anti-the-sack. If clubs want a hire and fire culture, he argued, they could hardly complain when managers erred on the side of selfpreservation in the field of results.
Though O’neill is a product of one of the most romantic English stories – the spectacular rise of Nottingham Forest under Clough – he has never been a dreamer in his own managerial career. The Republic’s 1-0 win over Wales in Cardiff, which earned them a World Cup play-off spot, was straight from his favourite playbook of big wins built on passion and calculation. He is a manager who thinks in outcomes, not the artistic merit of the contest, and was rewarded for that pragmatic outlook with an archetypal smash-and-grab victory via James Mcclean’s goal.
For the supposed crime of making the most of limited resources, and not worrying about the aesthetics, O’neill has had to slog through lots of media and fan hostility, most recently in Dublin, where everyone seemed to be on his back after the Republic drew in Georgia and lost to Serbia. But his vision was as narrow back then as it was in Cardiff. “These players come up with big wins at different stages,” he reminded everyone after the Georgia game.
This is the Republic’s whole story. They are the big-game thespians. They have won only two of their 13 games at World Cups but have progressed from the group stage on all three occasions. In 1990 they reached the quarterfinals without winning a match. Four years later they beat Italy at New York’s Giants Stadium to progress. In 2002 they lost on penalties in the last 16 to Spain. In 2009, they were cheated in a
He has slogged his way through lots of media and fan hostility
World Cup play-off by Thierry Henry’s handball goal for France in Paris. At Euro 2016, another victory over Italy earned them a round-of16 tie against France. In Cardiff on Monday night, they overturned European Championship semifinalists who had not lost a home qualifier for four years.
This is some catalogue for a country of 4.7million souls whose greatest player, Roy Keane, stomped out of the 2002 World Cup squad. And if you need an encapsulation of O’neill’s strange alchemy, turn to Keane’s boyish, if bearded, happy face on the pitch in Cardiff. Recruiting Keane to be his assistant was seen by many as folly on O’neill’s part. “I think I’m the bad cop and he’s the bad, bad cop,” he joked at the time. There could be no greater expression of diplomatic dexterity than his success in turning Keane into a reliable lieutenant.
The Jack Charlton years raised expectations in the Republic to unsustainable levels. O’neill has not indulged the belief that his team could play carpet football to match the best of Europe. Across football generally, the pendulum has swung away from possessionobsessed purists to a renewed acceptance that there are many footballing styles, and many ways to win a game. One is to exploit an Ashley Williams mistake, score, then defend like hell.
If Wales v the Republic had the look and feel of a Championship play-off game (in England’s second tier), O’neill knew exactly how his men might prevail. “I have never doubted the character of the players,” he said. “That’s instilled in them. They have great courage.”
They blocked, tackled, headed, and wasted time. O’neill’s CV is the