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Tuesday 24 April 2018

Martin gets calls right from the off

Straight-talking O'Neill a relief after taxing Trap days

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

MANY moons ago, a cranky sub editor took this writer to task for offering an opinion in a football match report: "They don't care what you think, they want to know what happened."

These days, people still care what happened, but they want to know more and it is impossible to relay the sense of an event like Martin O'Neill's first regular match week press conference without offering an opinion. It's all about opinion now.

The same sub editor had a particular distaste for journalists writing about themselves or each other and felt that this was the ultimate betrayal of the reader.

"If we wanted to know what you thought about anything, we'd send a real journalist out to interview you. Don't hold your breath on that one."

This advice came to mind when O'Neill sat in front of the daily newspaper hacks out in Malahide yesterday and gave his assessment of the first day back to work.

It was woolly enough stuff as it must be for a man new to a job and feeling his way through potential minefields, but there was much to digest, laugh about and discuss in a way we haven't seen in five years.

So with that in mind and with due respect to an old mentor, now deceased, it should first of all be pointed out there was a faint purring in the room when O'Neill sat down to speak.

 

Opinion

The sound was contentment after a long exhaling of breath. Five years of verbal minestrone from Giovanni Trapattoni taxed the mind, body and soul and left an indelible imprint on our grey cells. Not a good one, it must be said.

We had to offer an opinion on what we thought his opinions were and believe me, that gets old very quickly.

It was a source of great hilarity among the faithful band which dogged Trapattoni's footsteps across Europe and North America when Liam Brady spoke of a cabal of hacks, sifting through Trapattoni's words and printing those thoughts which suited a particular agenda.

We barely knew what the man was talking about for about 70 to 80pc of his interviews and what we did understand was a third party interpretation offered almost inevitably with a shrug by Manuela Spinelli. Nobody had time to push any agendas.

But with O'Neill, here is a man the hacks can understand and, on the plus side for those who like their reportage straight, he is a talker and seems to enjoy it. Either that or he is a very good actor.

With O'Neill (and here's the opinion bit), it feels as if we are merely tuning in to an inner dialogue which rattles along incessantly and readily bubbles to the surface when you stick a microphone in front of him.

In fact, he often admits that his words are the result of the application of some serious thought about a given subject over a period of time and when he does speak, it will be a considered view which emerges.

It must be said, O'Neill does like to play verbal tag with his audience and will sit with a poker face and throw out a few casual remarks which would normally make journalists reach for their phones before clarifying that this was one of his jokes.

He does it often, but leaves a whiff of gunsmoke in the air. Was he really joking there?

But you cannot imagine the difference between O'Neill's stream of consciousness and Trapattoni's; suffice to say that one is the thought pattern of a young, sharp mind and the other , meanderings down synaptic pathways which are, shall we say, clogged by age.

 

Criticism

O'Neill fielded a few hand grenades with some aplomb and there will always be hand grenades.

Football managers walk a thin line with the press and most of the biggest headlines are gleaned from the space where a daily working relationship is soured by criticism and breaks down.

The post-Trapattoni debate about the negative influence the media has on the national team will find no resonance with O'Neill.

His background in the Premier League and his extra-curricular television and newspaper work has exposed him to the media to such an extent that he was pleasantly surprised yesterday when he was able to head back to the team hotel and more important business so quickly. He expected there would be more and wasn't put out by the prospect.

I was at one of O'Neill's first Celtic press conferences and remember vividly how downright scared some of the Glasgow hacks were of the wee man peering at them through small lenses and how well he used words.

Years later, I got the same sense of quiet dread when Roy Keane left behind the carefree days he had in his early years in England and swapped open smiles for hooded intensity when he faced the press.

O'Neill seems more mellow now and is hamming it up as the good cop for all his worth. He has put no shackles on his assistant and seems happy to roll the dice and see what occurs.

But nobody should think for a second that there isn't cold steel lurking under his genial exterior.

The single most notable aspect of the last week is the stark bitterness O'Neill displays when he speaks about Paolo di Canio and events at Sunderland.

We are lucky indeed to have found two men with so much to prove at the exact moment when their country's need and their own dovetails so perfectly.

Strap yourself in folks. We get Roy Keane today, and this is going to be a wild ride.

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