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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.

 

Why, Why, Why ? Ban Delilah!

Tom Jones ImageThe silly season is upon us again, by this we mean the season in which perspective and reality are lost to small mindedness and ignorance. This time honoured tradition recently saw the notion of banning Delilah from sporting stadia, Wales Rugby Union & Stoke City FC, put forward by Dafydd Iwan.

The motive behind this was that the song glorifies a murder and speaks lightly of the murder of a woman.The fact that the song is a tale of the severe regret at a momentary loss of reason and even begs forgiveness, did not appear to have been considered. It would not have taken a genius to put this ridiculus notion to bed and ensure that the superb sound of 40,000 people singing the Jom Jones classic with full voice and their own particular spin would remain. Luckily it would appear that common sense is prevailing and even Dafydd has seen the error of his ways.

However with this current trend, of picking apart songs, rhymes and other innocent entertainments in order to damn them with modern sensitivities, attitudes and interpretation, it occurred to me that this could be the start of a very slippery slope. A look at a few other songs enjoyed by supporters at various sports grounds suggests this could be the mere tip of the politically incorrect iceberg.

West Ham fans will have to desist from from “forever blowing bubbles” due to it possibly xenophobic, bubble being short for the rhyming slang bubble & squeak meaning Greek. This could be taken even further if the blowing was considered with a modern edge………

Everton supporters will have to do without the Z Cars theme in case it is scene as promoting the heavy handed police brutality of the 1960’s.

Liverpool followers will have to suspend the “Fields of Anfield Road” as its original can be seen as anti English and has been used by IRA supporters.

Those who follow Man United and other must stop “Looking on the bright side of life” as this is associated with Monty Python mocking the bible!

Surely Middlesborough FC ‘s use of “Papa’s got a brand new pigbag” will offend vegetarians , Muslims and Jewish people.

Oh where would it have all ended? I for one am deeply appreciative of the interventions that have seen the anthem of my local club saved, as I am sure are Neil & Lou!

Neil Baldwin and Lou macari

In desperate times, call out the old guard.

WarnockThe appointment of Neil Warnock as manager at Crystal Palace is merely confirmation of the desperate tactic employed by chairmen/owners who then lack the courage of the convictions that drove them to the decision.

It seems that the Premier League is currently beholden to the appointment of young managers from a generation of supposedly progressive coaches. Preferably these individuals will have been seen to serve under the one or more titans from the pantheon of currently working management icons. If this is not possible then one with a similar view of the world and a previous connection to the club is a good bet.

Yet come the witching hour, when these best laid plans for progressive football and a vaguely continental attitude result in the club or players struggling to adapt, and clubs find themselves lurching into the relegation zone, then the panic button is pushed and time and time again the call goes out to the old guard. Often but not always older in years, but generally it is their view of the managers role that is old school.

redknapplevy

After another failed experiment with the Director of football & head coach combination, Daniel Levy hit the panic button and went against every fibre of his being and recruited, at considerable cost, the very blueprint of the old school manager Harry Redknapp. Four successful years later Levy tired of having the football side of his club run for him and sacked him. He is now on his third head coach since 2012. Milan Manderic can at least be credited with realising his folly and returning to Redknapp’s well before it was too late. West Ham tried a number of differing coaches following the Gold/Sullivan takeover. Finding themselves in The Championship, and hemorrhaging money fast, what did they do? appoint Sam Alladice. Despite his superb effort in getting the Hammers out of that division, at the first attempt and gaining respectable Premier League finishes, in his first two seasons, the vultures have been out for Sam for a while. Only the financial precariousness of their situation and the move to the Olympic Stadium have stayed the co-owners hand so far.

When Ian Holloway owned up, to having created a mess he could not get out of, Crystal Palace hunted high and low for a way out. After protracted negotiation Tony Pulis was appointed, less than twelve months later and having proven himself beyond his board’s wildest expectations, TP was on his way. Again a chairman/owner could not cope with managers who want to manage. Arsene Wenger recently stated that he would not have a Director of football, his simple reasoning was that managers are responsible for the performance of players and teams thus they must be in charge of them and their recruitment.

Warnock is another cut from this cloth, though not naive enough to believe he can still do it alone, and with an existing relationship with the club that will serve him well. His selection over Steve Clarke however illustrates that again in the panic hour old guard manager is prefered to a perceived head coach. A look at the fortunes, mainly in the middle to lower reaches of the Premier League following the departures of these supposedly archaic figures offers a harsh warning to those with delusions. Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn now struggle in the Championship. Spurs have both sold their best player and spent over £100 million whilst failing to improve on Redknapp’s reign in either style or results. Aston Villa have spent 3 years battling relegation after dispensing with the services of Martin O Neil, interestingly they have now added an assistant manager very much cut from the old guard cloth.

Stoke City may play the role of the exception that proves the rule, managing the departure of one old-fashioned manager, Then employing a new one, to use the structures and benefits built by the previous incumbent, and chairman Peter Coates, together with a huge contact book and wide experience in an attempt to progress the club. Everton too appear to have pulled off a master stroke in their appointment of a combination of manager and progressive coach in Roberto Martinez.

The view of Wenger combined with the implosion of Manchester United following the departure of the very definition of old guard point to the syndrome not being restricted to smaller clubs. Barcelona are struggling to find another who can run an entire club and represent a philosophy in the manner of Guardiola.

In the next few months, as the panic hour approaches, the same decision will be taken by several clubs. Will Utd panic and re install Ferguson, with Giggs, and how many others in the lower reaches of the Premier League will send out the clarion call for an old-fashioned manager able to cope with both the task and its pressures.  As the supply of these supposed dinosaurs gets less and less the demand may increase. The success of a handful of new potential managers, in the true sense of the word, may yet save these totems of the English game from extinction.