Thursday 27 October 2016

O'Neill's own goals rankle

Ireland boss brings trouble on himself and his team with loose talk

Martin O’Neill (left) with Roy Keane during squad training in Turners Cross. Pic: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill (left) with Roy Keane during squad training in Turners Cross. Pic: Sportsfile

It's difficult to avoid the sense that this is all a bit of a shot in the dark for Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane. It's not like either of them have done it before.

Sure, O'Neill had Spain '82 and Keane had USA 94 as players but neither of them had any idea how to manage an international team when they accepted the offer from the FAI.

They've made mistakes already. Big ones. A giddy and laddish night in the Cork Opera House has caused all sorts of fallout and of all things, brought O'Neill into conflict with the LGBT community.

That's some achievement. At least Saipan was about footballs and a rubbish football pitch.

And what was Ireland's No 2 thinking when he berated several squad members for their attitude to training and the game against Belarus?

Did Keane think it was a good idea to lash players in the media? No doubt it was needed - but in public and with the hairdrier setting at blowtorch?

Can you imagine how a younger Keane would have responded if Maurice Setters had done the same to him in the Jack Charlton era, or if Taff Evans, Mick McCarthy's No 2 who Keane never saw eye to eye with, had criticised the often volcanic Corkman?

There would have been carnage and who knows, maybe even a walk-out. Taff might have been forced to apologise and that's no exaggeration.

It was the wrong thing to do but sits perfectly with the idea that Ireland's management team seems to have about their place in the world.

Keane's seems to think he has licence to do as he pleases but has there ever been a No 2 in the history of the game with so much to say?

O'Neill has always said that he would not control Keane's comments but for the sake of his team and Ireland's entire effort in France, he needs to change that view.


Kevin Kilbane went into print yesterday with a stinging criticism of Keane and everything he said was correct.

How can players lean on Keane now after he ridiculed some of their mates in front of the media - a mortal sin at any football club and worse still with an international team?

All week long in Cork, it felt like Keane was on a bit of a victory parade and it's hard to see what that was all about.

The people of Cork loved it and maybe it was the balmy night air and the general feeling of affection pouring towards the team which allowed Keane and indeed O'Neill to relax their guard and let their tongues wag.

Big fish in a small pond they most certainly are but that's an even bigger reason to avoid the kind of stupid, offensive throwaway remarks which O'Neill now knows, can get you into serious trouble.

Maybe all of this is because they are not hanging around after the tournament and they can afford to behave as if they are on a bit of a jaunt.

Maybe O'Neill and Keane have forgotten how poorly situated they were before Scotland lost out in Georgia or further back, before the FAI employed them.

Smug would be too strong a word but they hold all the cards and the FAI can only grit their teeth.

It's saying something that this duo have managed to make Ireland's football governing body a candidate for sympathy.

You could say that O'Neill had nowhere else to go when he took the job and there is no doubt that Keane's ambitions in management were on semi-permanent hold.

That's all changed now and they are men in demand. Success has a way of making glitter look shinier, just as failure makes a manager invisible when people are hiring.

Yet, a rational view of Ireland's management team so far would not produce a glowing report card.

O'Neill had a long time for experimentation and refinement before he was playing for points but his first job was to play as many provisional balls as he could against failure.

They came in his early pronouncements that the young talent he was hoping to find under bushes around Ireland, England and Scotland did not exist.

The two seriously decent prospects rooted in the Diaspora were lost when Harry Kane chose his heart's desire and Jack Grealish also followed the England route.

While that was happening, O'Neill chopped and changed in his friendly games and never played the same team twice.

The pattern was repeated when qualifying got underway and there's a good chance that the team he picks for Sweden will be one he has never picked before.

Another worrying note is the preparation we've seen so far, designed by O'Neill and Keane to avoid cabin fever and which resulted in players turning up two weeks ago out of condition and not necessarily because of injuries.

It was very odd to hear Keane the day after the game against Belarus ripping into players for turning up unfit and demanding that they, at the very least, take training seriously.

You could pose a simple question after hearing that. What was Keane doing in those three weeks? He's the No 2 and surely one of his jobs is to keep an eye on the players?

What have both men been doing for the last two years? Have they not imposed sufficient discipline that players would, at the very least, deliver the minimum requirement for players approaching a major finals tournament - fitness?


The Belarus game wasn't even in O'Neill's head back in March and in the end, it was used for nothing more than a deeply awkward and unnecessarily ramshackle version of Ireland's Got Talent.

Surely it would have been wiser to use the final two warm-up games to give the players who will carry a nation's hope into the first game against Sweden, now less than a week away, some time on the pitch together?

Ireland kick off their French adventure in a week and nobody, least of all Martin O'Neill, knows which 11 players he will pick.

If that suggests that Ireland travel on a wing and a prayer, it's probably right.

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