Tag Archives: Martin O Neil

Martin O’Neil – Often Underestimated, Rarely Defeated.

The Doctor, as Brian Clough christened, Martin O Neil.

The Doctor, as Brian Clough christened, Martin O Neil.

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.

O Neil was hugely succesfull as an international player.

O Neil was hugely succesfull as an international player.

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.

Masterful decision. Keane could not have been an easy appointment.

Masterful decision. Keane could not have been an easy appointment.

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.

Meastro & Inspiration. Brian Clough.

Meastro & Inspiration. Brian Clough.

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.

Siege Mentality

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.

MON Celtic

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.


Brian Clough, Memories & Legacy.

clough playerThe 10 year anniversary of the passing of the man many call the Master Manager has not gone unmarked. Time will not fade the memories of those who watched,  the man himself, playing for Middlesborough or Sunderland, scoring two hundred and fifty plus league goals in record time. Nor will they forget watching the teams he went on to manage. Starting, as the league’s youngest manager, at Hartlepools, his championship winners at Derby County or the title winning Nottingham Forest who went on to become back to back European Champions.

The notorious spell at Leeds has been immortalised in a tough to accept fictional novel and in a memorable film. His more visual characteristics are still to be found in you tube, scenes of terrorising commentators and interacting with talk-show hosts and even Mohammed Ali. Yet it is easy to caricature Clough and miss the true genius behind the bravado.

clough green sweater

Amidst the banner headlines, of a superlative career, many other superb achievements are not properly recognised. Forest’s capture of the top flight title was achieved in the 1977/78 season and was their debut year after gaining promotion. Rarely done previously it has never been repeated. The ability to galvanise a team, to believe that this was even possible, and then pull it off, would surely test the greatest managers of any era.

The regular development, and re deploying of players, into new positions or with new confidence and belief is a shining example of something missing today. The mercurial John Robertson, turned into the a double European Cup winning hero, the reputed thug, Kenny Burns, turned into the player of the season, the carpet fitter Gary Birtles, turned into one of Europe’s best strikers. Of these achievements Peter Taylor deserves a share of the credit, yet the conveyor belt still continued after his sad departure. Steve Hodge, Steve Stone, Stuart Pearce, as well as the prodigal son Nigel, were all turned into England internationals and they were not alone.

Those , including myself, who eulogize about Jose Mourinho and his ability to forge teams and take much of the pressure onto himself after imbuing the belief of the zealot into his players, should refer to the Clough handbook for hundreds of examples of this school of man management. The examples of unusual tactics and diversions to relax players,  and psych out oppositions, are legendary but also pre cursors of much that sports psychology attempts to teach us today.

Another area of unmatched skill was the discipline with which Clough’s teams played and conducted themselves. Players were fined if they crossed the line with the referee, threatened with non selection if they set bad examples in front of fans or others. The well known quotes about “get a hair cut, young man” would not be half as long lasting if they were not true. Although even Clough may have gone too far with the remark about all Leeds United’s trophies being gained through cheating, he simply believed they had not been achieved the “right way”. The comments of referee’s following his retirement, and later in eulogy, speak more than any statistics can manage. Perhaps this comment from a famous interview with John Motson sums it up “I think that what you do to referees is nothing short of criminal. I do, honestly. And I think that the standard you feel that should be coming from referees at the moment is absolutely incredible…He makes a decision in 5 seconds, or 2 seconds, or one  second or whatever it is, in the heat of the moment, with 22 players and 30,000 people shouting and bellowing. All I’m saying is that you don’t make that point strongly enough. It should be over-emphasised how hard it is to referee a match.” 

clough black and white

The legacy of Brian Clough is manyfold and for that we should be thankful. His many contradictions and charismatic ways have led to a flood of recent books and writings. One pair of books contains over 140 stories and anecdotes from people’s memories of the man and his work. No other manager would inspire such outpourings, the various biographies are often worth reading just for glimpses and perspectives not before in print. From a darker perspective “Nobody ever says thankyou” by Jonathon Wilson is a tremendous piece of analysis and writing. Clough’s legacy in influencing those who played and now manage or coach is comparable with any. Stuart Pearce has managed in the top flight and both England and Great Britain teams. Martin O Neil has had a tremendous record with provincial clubs and great names in England and Scotland and now is combining with Roy Keane to manage Ireland. The interesting link between O Neil and Clough via Neil Lennon’s excellent work at Celtic and Paul Lambert with Roy Keane at Villa seems to have started well. Nigel Clough  has demonstrated an ability to manage clubs and to bring them steady progress and stability, I await the day this is tested at the highest level.

Clough’s greatest legacy is simply the demonstration of what can be done. The ability to select, motivate and manage a team of players to, outwardly unexpected, glory. Every now and again in the intervening years a brief flash of this is shown to be true, Porto winning the Uefa Cup & Champions League, Bayer Leverkussen reaching the final. Athletico Madrid winning La Liga and pushing Real all the way in the Champions League final. Notice a common thread? Each has a lower budget and a hugely dynamic, determined, self-possessed and charismatic manager. The enduring legacy is surely that even in today’s climate, it can still be done!

Thank-you, for everything,  Mr Clough.