Unusually, in football, Martin O Neil gives off the impression of intelligence that is not restricted to his chosen sport. Having stalled a law degree, to attempt to make the grade at Nottingham Forest, he was christened Dr.,by Brian Clough, due to this intelligence popping up at times that the maestro found irritating.
An immense playing career followed the arrival of Clough at Forest, The League Title, European Cups and more silverware were followed by International caps, then the captaincy and successful World Cup campaigns with Northern Ireland. Yet throughout this time MON never seemed to get the credit he deserved. It was no fluke that he was selected, bought or retained, by great managers, in successful sides. A strong will, good touch and keen reading of the game made him highly valued within sides that often had players with higher profiles or reputations.
Due to his understated success no obvious managerial role was presented to him when he called time on that playing career, and so another day job, until non league management gave him an avenue to apply the skills, and experience, learned from the very best, in combination with his own thoughts and ideas on coaching and club management.
MON’s management career has been an almost continuous run of success with lower league, low resources and often lesser talents. Along the way there he been a couple of unusual decisions, on points of principle, and another couple of non descript spells. Just as it appeared that this superb career was fading and might be forever catagorised as “what might have been…..” A move to another team of lesser obvious talent and resources presented itself. Those who thought O’ Niel was a busted flush, or thought he was simply Mr Movtivator who had been found lacking, should have looked more carefully at his whole career, influences and character.
The Republic of Ireland are relatively new to the higher echelons of International football. The 1980’s and 90’s had seen the phenomenal success of Jack Charlton. Reaching the later stages of two World Cups with a mix of Irish talent, plying their trade mainly in England, and Irish qualified players whom could not make their “home” national team. That success was built on method, team sprit, hard graft and commitment, big Jack actually new how to win a World Cup! Since that time however, despite brief resurgences under Mick McCarthy and Giovanni Trapatonni, times had been tough. The talent pool appeared to be dwindling,the better players ageing and the opposition getting stronger. Yet, of course, the country wanted continued success despite these factors. Thus the clarion call went out and, courtesy of the financial backing of a wealthy Irish businessman, Martin would be given the responsibility of solving this conundrum . It did not take a genius to see that this was a perfect stage for O Neil’s talents.
His first decision upon being offered a hero was to build a management team fit for the job. Like his mentor MON functions well, and succeeds with players, when the senior partner in double or small team. His regular counterpoint John Robertson, he of the golden left foot, was happy in semi retirement and so O’Neil borrowed from a Jose Mourinho tactic and found a “home team” assistant. Never frightened of controversy, or backing his own judgment, He persuaded the Irish Football Association and their paymasters to recruit Roy Keane. Due to Keane acrimonious falling out with the authorities while a player, and the many comments made by both sides since, this was a big achievement in itself!
Although it is an oversimplification, it is possible to now combine a few elements of MON’s football career and see them applied to his biggest challenge:
Influence of Ol Big Ed.
Although no clone of the master, it is clear that O’ Neil absorbed a huge amount, both consciously and on a sub conscious level. The assembling of a small team around him, with a complimentary right hand man, sore both Clough and O Neil at their peak. Other influences include giving players simple jobs, investing total belief in his view that they can do them brilliantly and being slightly removed from the day to day matters.
In the stop start world of international football this ensures players and staff are happy and relaxed, now what is expected of them and are on their toes at all times.
Although this was another of Clough’s skills, Martin may even out rank Brian in this area. Since his very earliest management job, with Grantham Town, he has consistently bonded a group of players, staff and supporters into believing, that although the odds were against them, they could achieve more and bloody the noses of the more fortunate along the way. This brings out the best in all groups and the he “We’ll show em” style suits Martin as well.
Whilst in club management this was best demonstrated at Leicester City with three cup finals, winning two, and consistent top eight finishes in the top division. The extreme tribal nature of Scottish, and Glasgow, football mean that, despite being a huge club, siege style mentality could be applied at Celtic especially early in the job.
Thus the draw for his first qualification tournament was right up O’Neil’s Street. The, newly crowned, World Champions Germany, highly ranked and rated Poland, a fierce local rivalry with Scotland, a tough traveling assignment to Georgia and newcomers Gibraltar must have added up to a mouthwatering prospect.
After a nice opening run in friendly games, suffering only one defeat, the real business of qualification got under way with some solid display and steady results, a late goal away in Georgia would prove vital at the end of the campaign. Despite a few negative grumbles, after a draw and narrow loss to Scotland, O’Niel seemed to have settled on a method and was growing into the role. A superb ending to the campaign saw the Irish defeating world champions Germany and coming within a whisker of automatic qualification in a narrow loss to Poland. However the momentum seemed to have turned and be with the men in green. A tough play off draw against Bosnia was followed by a superbly earned draw in the away leg, despite a hostile atmosphere and a squad without several key members.
Ever one to pull a surprise, from the hat, O Neil went on the attack, in the home leg, and unsettled the Bosnian side. The selection of Brady at left back proved a masterstroke providing attacking menace and ammunition for ROI hero John Walters.
Walters could be said to have typified O Neil’s approach to the campaign. A huge amount of togetherness and team spirit, a never say die approach and not a little talent had been blended with O Neil’s knowledge of European football and getting the best for the underdog. O’ Neil thus qualified his side for a major championship at the first attempt and will a talent pool generally accepted as worse than many of his predecessors.
The thoughts of those at the FA, who turned down O Neil for the England job a few years ago, would be good to hear and may be even more sought after when the championships are actually played! I suspect I will be in very good company when watching how MON and his team perform in the tournament itself. However I would not be foolish enough to underestimate him.