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Tuesday 17 October 2017

Clever O'Neill finds a way to win big value games

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during squad training at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during squad training at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

The main reason most Irish people hate wearing a favourites tag is the sanguine and even morbid knowledge that fate has never been averse to smacking the nation full on in the face with a custard pie.

This is particularly true of our sportsmen and women, figures like Sonia and Roy, tortured during their careers by fleets of demons and just when they were in their pomp, laid low by viruses and the absence of sun tan lotion.

Our teams toil up the slope until they reach the death zone where ambition fails or blossoms and shady men like bunged-up Portugese referees inflict pain beyond belief, always tempered by the consolation of our underdog mindset.

We're in that place on Sunday against Austria, a team stripped of talent by injury, suspension and a wedding. That's a thing you don't write very often.

Often in the past, a golden opportunity to put away a big team and establish squatters rights on at least a play-off place has been lost in a confusion of nerves, poor football and poor management.

Biggest

In the panel beside this piece, we've listed some of the big blow-ups but Saipan isn't mentioned and that was perhaps the biggest.

The cock-up was off the pitch or more precisely, the organisation but Roy Keane was there to win and who knows, maybe the impossible would have happened if he had stayed and played.

The great Ray Treacy always regretted that Keane never made it to Izumo and the spectacular training complex the locals had put in place. Many wounds would have been eased by the balm of regular training in a nice place.

Keane was there in Poznan in 1992 when Ireland blew a two goal lead, let Poland back in for a 3-3 draw and watched their chance of making it to Stockholm for the finals disappear via the irritating boot of Gary Linkeker in November 1991 whie YBIG were battering Turkey in Izmir.

He wasn't in Macedonia in 1999 when the wheels fell off nor involved with either of the games against Israel which destroyed Ireland's Euro 2006 chances but he was part of the squad and felt the pain just as keenly.

On the face of it, there is nothing to suggest that such a collapse is imminent.

Strong

Martin O'Neill will send out a team against Austria as strong as any he has put on a pitch since he took over and with most of his main combatants present.

He has made a virtue of variety and by now, we have a better idea of how he operates.

The current narrative suggests he works by steadily building intensity until an hour before the game when he tells players the good or bad news.

But that version of his approach is far too simplistic and Callum O'Dowda gave us a hint of effort in the background which shows a pleasing attention to detail.

When O'Dowda first landed in the Under-21s, O'Neill was on the phone regularly, keeping tabs on a player he rated and immediately creating a strong connection with the kind of investment which can pay dividends down the road.

This is also at odds with some who suggest that the players have huge respect for O'Neill but haven't particularly warmed to him. O'Dowda is definitely a big fan.

He wouldn't be the first manager to work in that environment if O'Dowda is in the minority. Some of the greatest were hated and there is no rule which requires a manager to be loved.

There is another important bond in play here, the one between the fans and this team which is similar to the affection granted Jack Charlton and his players; perhaps stronger for the realisation that this is not as gifted a group.

The players have shown that they will give everything. No more is required although results help.

However O'Neill does it, the edge he brings and the hunger shown by all the players to perform for Ireland have brought him to the point where one more good result and we can dare to dream the unthinkable - winning a World Cup qualifying group.

Some of the football under O'Neill has been poor, a continuation of the trend set on the road to France last summer, but the results can't be denied.

Delivered

O'Neill has delivered three wins over ranked nations, as rare as a unicorn in Ireland's archive and two of them, Germany and Italy, dine at the very top table.

The latest, on a snowy November night in Vienna, gives his players motivation to continue a new trend by beating Austria again.

Four such wins, two of them away, in a 12-month period would almost be a habit.

How curious that at a time when the consensus view would be that Ireland's resources have never been at a lower ebb, these Irish players are notching up results which legends of the past could only dream about.

Ireland to win 2-0.

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