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Saturday 21 April 2018

O'Neill has done a lot in ten days

If Ireland manager can repeat formula he can lead us to Euros

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
James McCarthy, Republic of Ireland, in action against Robert Lewandowski, Poland. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

IT would be stretching reality to say that Martin O'Neill looked dazed after the dust had settled in Poznan and he offered his thoughts on a whirlwind two weeks which has lifted him into a new zone of prominence on the island of Ireland.

But he did look a touch weary and will definitely need a 'sos beag' to absorb all that has happened him since he picked up the phone and told the FAI that he was ready to commit.

He certainly underestimated the scale of the outpouring of goodwill which has covered him in a warm glow since the Gibson Hotel press conference, but he is no fool and he knows, like all jobbing professional football managers, that a time will come when he won't be faced with smiles and goodwill.

He has done much in a very short space of time. For one, he has re-established the normal rhythm of international football. Win your home games and dig out points away from home.

Giovanni Trapattoni somehow tilted that on its head and managed to establish a remarkable record away from home against good and bad teams, but couldn't find it in himself to believe that his players were capable of better on home turf.

Ireland hammered Latvia, as they should, and went to Poland to do a job. O'Neill made sweeping changes, but still managed to send out a cohesive unit and got a clean sheet in Poznan.

If he can repeat that formula when the Euro 2016 campaign gets under way in September next year, he will lead Ireland to France for the finals and be granted automatic sainthood.

The really great thing about this appointment is the fact that it addresses so many problem areas around the Ireland team and also offers a shot at redemption for one of our greatest football sons.

Roy Keane was like a young boy around the squad for the last few weeks from what we saw of him. Full of smiles, laughing and joking with the backroom staff and prowling the technical area like a hunting panther.

It was truly uplifting to see him rise a few feet off his seat, punching the air when Robbie Keane scored the first goal against Latvia and very satisfying to see him share a congratulatory moment with his namesake and currently Ireland's biggest football icon, Robbie Keane.

Back in 2002, with the campaign to get the elder Keane back into the Ireland squad after Saipan, it was obvious that some players wanted him back and other didn't.

 

CERTAINTY

It is impossible to say this with any certainty, that Robbie was among the antis, but let's say this; he was very firmly in Mick McCarthy's camp and backed the man who capped him first to the hilt.

Egos play a huge part in professional football and when Robbie first emerged and the Keano, Keano chants which used to ring around Lansdowne Road for a man from Cork, suddenly had another target, there must have been moments when Roy's inner child felt a tad peeved.

But Robbie has done great things for Ireland and scored a ridiculous amount of goals and for Roy the high achiever, that's currency.

They are both older and wiser and it was heartening to see an old wound healed and two men ready to move on and in one direction.

Small things like that will make a big difference. A detail like James McCarthy's football persona and the feeling that he could do with the percentage of Keane's make-up which raised the bar for everyone around him by demanding more.

McCarthy is a self-possessed young man, but his life to date has taught him to be circumspect and avoid centre stage outside the game.

Perhaps this has leaked into his football and perhaps Keane is the man to teach him that he should be looking for the ball more and bringing his full range of skills into play.

As things stand, he's the man to build Ireland's midfield around and he is already at the top of Keane's list of priorities. That can only be good.

O'Neill seemed genuinely puzzled that anyone would see Roy Keane's appointment as his assistant as a negative thing or a potential disaster.

He has joked on a number of occasions about the possibility that he has grabbed a tiger by the tail, but in his heart of hearts, he must believe he is very fortunate to get the full Keane package in relentlessly positive humour and with something to learn and prove.

So even if there is a small risk that something might go pear shaped, it is definitely worth the gamble for O'Neill.

He's a shrewd man, there is no doubt about that and he calculates everything from his words to his team selection.

He must be very happy indeed with his first 10 days. It could hardly have gone better for him, although when the thought was put to him, his response was almost Keano-esque.

"Wouldn't it have been lovely if we could have won?" he said.

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