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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Football -

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

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