Saturday 20 January 2018

O'Neill must try to reignite nation's love affair with the 'Boys in Green'

R Keane
R Keane

ON the day when Roy Keane will once again give us his thoughts on the build-up to another big Ireland international, it is tempting fate to suggest that this preparation will buck the trend and remain focused on football.

But everything seems fine. James McClean is now a big doubt if the size of the strapping and ice-pack on his ankle reflects the scale of the injury but even if he doesn't report fit, Martin O'Neill has options. So, in terms of personnel, he'll be fine. There's that word again.

In this context, it means okay, alight. It's vague and to be brutally honest, reflects the image O'Neill is radiating. Everything is just fine.

As the week goes on, perhaps we will see the rabble rousing move up a gear and Mr Keane is a live candidate for a spot of flag-waving but you don't get the sense that the nation at large is giddy with anticipation about Ireland v Poland in the same way every brutal collision between very large men chasing an oval ball is now celebrated.

People are uncertain about O'Neill and about this Ireland team.

With Giovanni Trapattoni there was certainty. However hard most people had to grit their teeth in the first year or two while he was winnowing out anyone who looked like he might pass the ball, the stark reality was that the same players failed to qualify for anything after 2002 and blew a couple of more than decent chances through ill-discipline and bad habits.

It's fine to have pure thoughts about football like John Giles and Eamon Dunphy but everyone needed a bit of Olé Olé and a ruthlessly pragmatic approach gave us the keys to the adults' room in world football when Jack Charlton took the team in hand..

Trapattoni tuned into the same thing and when Andy Reid, Stephen Ireland, Wes Hoolahan James McCarthy and others found themselves blocked, discouraged or denied, the outcry in response was muted.

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill

After a few games, Ireland settled into a pattern and only shifted from it twice in competitive football - away to Italy in the South Africa 2010 qualifying run and the infamous play-off against France in Paris in the same campaign.

The change came because the players took control of their own fate and largely ignored what Trapattoni had to say.

So far, it has been very difficult to pin down what O'Neill wants from his Ireland but the expectation was that his vision of how the team should play would be more entertaining than the awful, turgid and one-dimensional version of the game favoured by the Italian. The one that delivered results.

But no obvious plan has emerged, nothing concrete you could put your finger on and say right, that's the way O'Neill's Ireland play.

He has been hampered by the sense of drift which came after his initial appointment and the fact that the new international calendar took February out of play for friendlies. He has been practically invisible since November.

His contract involves a lot of grassroots ribbon cutting but he has nothing like the profile currently being enjoyed by Joe Schmidt. Ireland's new hero exudes quiet confidence and you always feel that the gig is in safe hands. If anyone can make something out the players he has been graced with, he can.

With O'Neill, there's a constant comma at work, a steady trickle of provisional ball insurance against all kinds of eventualities. It's his way, we know that now, but it might not be the right way for international football.

Club fans like to see a solid man in charge, someone who has hard held beliefs and complete confidence in his own ability to win football matches. Personality is neither here nor there because results buy popularity

As Ireland boss, O'Neill is selling himself to a completely different audience. As Ireland boss he is speaking to a nation and at the moment, the people are hanging out for some Olé Olé.

People like Paul O'Connell and his mates, the Ireland women's rugby team, Conor McGregor, Katie Taylor and the cricketers have shouldered O'Neill and his players out of the way. Momentum is his big problem. He doesn't have any.

The huge lift which John O'Shea's goal against Germany in Dusseldorf gave everyone was counter-balanced by the corresponding descent of heads after Glasgow.

That's why it would be good to see the importance of this fixture reflected in the way O'Neill and his players present themselves this week.

Take a leaf from Kamil Glik's book. He's thrown some fuel on the fire. How about the same from our lads?

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