herald

Wednesday 25 April 2018

New era lifts a nation

Positivity of duo's arrival is antidote to Trap turmoil

Republic of Ireland's Shane Long (left) and Andy Reid during the training session at the Aviva Stadium. Picture credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Republic of Ireland's Shane Long (left) and Andy Reid during the training session at the Aviva Stadium. Picture credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane during squad training. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

THE impact has been obvious and immediate. The word is that as many as 40,000 people will turn up to watch the first, tentative steps by Martin O'Neill as new Ireland manager against Latvia tonight and that is a huge result for the FAI before a ball is even kicked.

It is a consequence of the charisma contained in O'Neill's slight frame and Keane's more robust physique that a nation of football sceptics has decided to dig into pockets emptied by austerity when they wouldn't for Giovanni Trapattoni.

It wouldn't matter if it was a team of performing meerkats taking the field against Ireland tonight as long as they don't spoil the general sense of positivity emanating from Malahide.

O'Neill's comments have become more and more woolly as the week went on. No surprise there. The job of organising a group of 24 young men is complex and layered and he would be a fool to make any definitive statements with his feet barely in the door.

But on a daily basis, O'Neill has displayed the kind of characteristics which make him such a good choice for this or any job.

Artfully

As an example, the issue of Robbie Keane's captaincy was raised at the pre-match press conference and O'Neill artfully negotiated a path through a potentially difficult answer with such gentle ease while Ireland's record goalscorer sat beside him that we wondered what the last five years was about.

How often in the Trapattoni era did we shift in our seats and wonder what point was being made from the top table?

How often did Trapattoni put his dainty Italian loafers right in it when a smart, thoughtful response like the one O'Neill gave on this occasion would have been so much better for everyone involved – apart, of course, from the headline writers.

O'Neill gave himself and Keane an out ball when he suggested that at some nebulous point in the future Keane might come to him and say that he wants to enjoy the final months and years of his playing career without the weight of the captaincy around his shoulders. He left a door open to change and the possibility that he might choose a younger man to be his captain over the long haul.

Only a manager who looks after small details would do something like that.

Trapattoni was big on small details but seemed to miss some pretty big ones, most notably his refusal to even consider one of the very basics of management – seeing footballers playing football in the flesh.

Anoraks

With O'Neill and Roy Keane both exhibiting all the characteristics of football anoraks, there is little reason for concern about the miles they will put in over the coming months.

If O'Neill shares one quality with Trapattoni, it is ability to remember a slight done to him. For a few years after he came, Trap banged on an on about the World Cup in 2002 and Italy's humiliation at the hands of South Korea.

With O'Neill, it is Paolo di Canio. In every appearance in front of a camera since he arrived in town last Saturday, he has taken a moment to throw darts and seems to take particular pleasure in revisiting the subject time and time again.

In the vacuum which will be filled in the future by talk of players, team formations and opposing teams, he has allowed his spleen to vent. Hopefully, this will become less of a burning issue with him as wins pile up.

If O'Neill needs some time to make some plans, the players won't feel that they have a similar space available to them.

He described these two games against Latvia and Poland as a bit like pre-season for him, and an opportunity to make some judgements on the quality he has in his squad.

He admitted that he isn't close to settling on his best team and that this would be true even if this was Ireland's opening qualifying game in the Euro 2016 series.

In short, O'Neill was asking for some patience while he gets to grips with his new job and the fact that he has employed one of the greatest icons in the history of the game here as his sidekick.

There was no sign of Roy Keane during the pre-match briefing and it almost felt as if he should be there. Perhaps in days to come, when the media bullets are flying, he will put his No 2 out in front like a shield.

Security

At the moment, Bobby Byrne, his driver, is providing his first line of defence and O'Neill laughed when he told us that he will be much more comfortable with such attention after he has lost a few games.

For now, though, the feeling is relentlessly positive and O'Neill won't need to worry too much about his own security.

It is almost hard to believe that a few short months ago, Irish football was bereft and Trapattoni was presiding over a morgue at home games.

O'Neill and Roy Keane have indeed managed to lift a nation.

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