Sunday 19 August 2018

O'Neill system works - but don't ask me how

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill bears similar managerial traits to his old boss at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill bears similar managerial traits to his old boss at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough.

When I try to get into Martin O'Neill's head and put some substance on what he does to trigger players to perform the kind of heroics which have delivered some truly memorable results, my mind always settles on Brian Clough.

Against Denmark tomorrow night, O'Neill will try to conjure another small miracle from what has always seemed to me to be a method of team building and preparation which lacks a focus.

I can't argue with results, nor can I, in all fairness, claim that O'Neill is the luckiest Ireland manager of all time.

He's had some good breaks off the field, including drawing Denmark for this World Cup play-off and Bosnia for the Euro 2016 version and on it during qualifiers for both competitions when results didn't reflect some poor performances.

When the wheels came off in Georgia and then against Serbia in Dublin, I felt that his unwillingness to search for consistency of selection had caught up with him.

I don't think I'm wrong about that. When good players play together a lot over time, it can only be a positive thing.

Quirk

There are other features of O'Neill's way which puzzle me but what I cannot deny is that he has a mystery ingredient, a quirk of his character which players respond to and do so 60 minutes before kick-off in a big game.

O’Neill is pictured with Clough after a FA Cup third round win over Tottenham Hotspur back in January 1975
O’Neill is pictured with Clough after a FA Cup third round win over Tottenham Hotspur back in January 1975

This brings me back to Clough and the way people responded to him. It is very relevant because O'Neill is clearly a devotee and has striven to emulate his master throughout a long and successful management career.

Like Clough, O'Neill seems to be a very accurate judge of character and instinctively knows the right buttons to push to bring qualities of resilience and determination to the surface in players who are already wired for a physical battle.

I know that I had a deep dislike for Clough when he burst into the Leeds United bubble and tried to use his personality to goad people to play for him.

But I wanted to play for him. I wanted to impress him despite the fact that I hated what he was doing to my team.

I have often thought about that and wondered what it was about Clough that made me respond to what common sense told me was a crazy way to manage adults and in this case, multi medal-winning footballers.

I've never been able to answer that question and I reckon it is the same with O'Neill just as it was the same for the Ireland players who worked under Jack Charlton.

They played for him even if the type of football he wanted went against all their instincts. If you ask them now why they were willing to do it, they would not be able to put their finger on it.

A quality which Jack had in abundance was confidence, even arrogance and this helped him a great deal.

I read O'Neill's comment about the fact that people see him as aloof and hands off with great interest because I think it's the same quality at work.

Put simply, Jack didn't care what anyone thought. Self-doubt never arose and I believe O'Neill is just the same.

Voices

The ability to blot out all other voices because you know the best advice will come from yourself is a trait shared by many illustrious names and always present in a great manager.

Busby, Shankly, Revie and Clough were ruthless and clearly ego-maniacs to be so convinced of their own philosophy but they were proven right by results.

On the surface, the only blot on O'Neill's copybook is Sunderland but there is always an exception that proves the rule and no manager is immune to failure.

This is the context which makes me think that Ireland will come through this play-off with the results they need. I couldn't tell you how they are going to do it and I'm not sure O'Neill or his players know either at this point. I know that I will probably disagree with his team selection and his use or misuse of Wes Hoolahan and I know he won't care what I or anyone else thinks.

I know that an hour before kick-off in the Parken Stadium, O'Neill will be about his work and that in every important, win-or-bust situation as Ireland manager, he has pushed the right buttons.

I've already pointed out this week that Christian Eriksen is not a player who needs to be given special status and I see nobody else in a squad weakened defensively by injuries to make me worry about the two games ahead.

Denmark finished second in their group for a reason and they were the preferred opposition when the eight names were confirmed for the draw last month.

Sure, if I dwell too long on Georgia or that home defeat by Serbia, I could find all kinds of reasons to worry about how well Ireland will do.

But each time I go there I come up against O'Neill's mystery ingredient, a variable I cannot begin to quantify or understand and have only the evidence of results to go on.

When the chips are down and Ireland have nothing to lose, O'Neill's message seems to carry its greatest power and I think he can work his magic again.

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