Monday, 13 June 2016

Is O'Neill the Sorcerer's Apprentice

Martin O’Neill it is, seemingly, for the Republic of Ireland vacancy barring any mishap, change of mind, or appearances of other interested candidates. Or indeed the fact that O’Neill may not even want the post. Albeit newspaper reports this week indicate that the former Northern Ireland international may have met the Football Association of Ireland interviewing duet, Dokter and Houghton. However, it maybe just a formality as other reports scream that Ipswich Town’s Mick McCarthy is rather keen too. But has yet to be spoken to by the interviewers.

Although the return of McCarthy is hard to fathom in many ways, beyond perhaps the obvious – that much enhanced pay scale that now rates to the FAI position – as he already lived the dream in 2002. Coming close to Jack Charlton’s record from 1990 and almost getting Ireland to the quarterfinals. Proving just a penalty too far for Mick’s squad in Japan over a decade ago. To relive a lesser dream now seems unusual rare, unless your name is Gus Hiddink, who has no fear about returning to former clubs once, twice or even three times.

O’Neill’s name though has been long touted as the preferred choice for the FAI, even on previous occasions. But the decision was impossible for very understandable personal reasons at the time for him to take the role. Though in 2006 he did resurface at Aston Villa where he lasted four years and handled speculation along the way that he was England boss in waiting material. Or indeed even Liverpool bound soon after Rafa Benitez was axed at Anfield. 

But as Brian Clough once said about O’Neill “If he'd been English or Swedish, he'd have walked the England job." 

On the field though Martin achieved some magic with Villa and in the 2008/09 was at one point on target to clinch a top four Premier League place. However as it is with football those dreams fell apart when a loss in the UEFA Cup led to a lengthy losing streak in the League which ended the hopes long harboured at Villa Park of a return to the Champions League. 

His premature departure - virtually at the start of the 2010 season - earned him no friends as he left the Villains very much in the lurch in pre-season. And without any added silverware if the analysis were to be fulsome, his reputation was somewhat tarnished. As winning was something he had regularly done at Celtic during his five year tenure. Then reappearance at Sunderland at the end of 2011, in the wake of previous Gaffers Niall Quinn, Roy Keane, Ricky Sbrigia, Steve Bruce and Eric Black seemed uncharacteristic. 

However it was a club he had supported seemingly all his life and in some way that made sense of his choice. 

Time though was to prove that dreams and success are very different things and O’Neill parted company with Sunderland in the spring of 2013. Again without any silverware or additional personal honours from those gained at Wycombe Wanderers and Leicester City – in his early days of management - in the last Century.

But it is as a player that Martin O’Neill’s achievements cannot be faulted, twice a Champions League medal winner, First Division winner of the equivalent of the Premier League today, twice a League Cup Champion and then Super Cup winner in 1979. All achieved with the modest outfit put together by Brian Clough at the City Ground under the name Nottingham Forest. A team that went out and redistributed most of the trophies in Europe for about five years. 

Their classic rivalry with the mighty Liverpool in the late 1970’s stuff of legend. As was there first European title won in Munich in 1979 against Malmo.

A feat repeated at the Santiago Bernabeu the following year against the might of Kevin Keegan’s Hamburger SV, albeit both matches were won by just a single goal, they were still won. Still one of the teams to ever retain the European Cup trophy the others being Ajax, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Benfica, Liverpool, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Exalted company it has be said, especially considering where Nottingham Forest is today in the 21st Century.

O’Neill was also part of a Northern Ireland team that reached consecutive World Cup Finals in 1982 and four years later in Mexico. Playing only in the qualifying campaign for 1986. The appearance in Spain being the most renowned as they beat the hosts - against all pre-tournament odds - and were rewarded with a quarterfinal stage in Madrid. Losing out to France one Sunday afternoon that July, understandably unable to repel the might of Michel Platini, Dominique Rocheteau, Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana, Marius Tresor, and Genghini at the Estadio Vicente Calderon.

But it was a memorable party at the Alameda Hotel that night. The team able to go home with heads held high having reached beyond their own dreams and Gerry Armstrong’s cracking goal in Valencia the abiding memory. 

In Mexico four years later it was a different story and O’Neill was to miss out due to a chronic knee injury. Perhaps fortunate as passage forward that time was never going to be easy. Particularly at altitude and after drawing with Algeria in the first game, leaving the vital meeting with Spain all about payback for 1982. Then followed by a 3-0 loss to the Brazil. 

On leaving Forest in 1981 O’Neill became somewhat of a journeyman with spells at Manchester City, Norwich City, Notts County, Chesterfield, Fulham and Swindon. Never able to recreate that magic of the Clough era from earlier years. Where a group of "has beens" and "unknowns" marched on Europe. 

Clough and Peter Taylor gathered from Liverpool one Larry Lloyd; Frank Clark from Newcastle; John McGovern from Leeds United, then Birmingham's Kenny Burns; Banks understudy Peter Shilton; local lad Ian Bowyer, non-league find Gary Birtles, and also the irrepressible John Robertson already in house. Boosted then by the shrewd purchase in 1979 of the first million pound player, Trevor Francis. The team’s strength simply being the sum of all the funny individual parts all playing a passion game.

Of all the players in those two Champions League final teams, O’Neill remains the only one who has managed with any consequence. Holding the on-going spirit of those Clough days as his reference, and one of the few that still bears those secrets. Roy Keane perhaps another. Although the Clough of the 1990's was sadly not the same as the one that dominated Europe two decades previous. 

Albeit Cloughie could still obviously spot a class player from a 100 paces.

Whether this record constitutes grounds for O’Neill to be an International manager, and one who brings success, is anyones guess. The only factor in favour being he is now older and further down his career path that a part time jobs might seemingly work better. As such partnerships when taken earlier in the managerial apprenticeship, like Mark Hughes at Wales, Steve McLaren at England, don’t work. Or with Nigel Worthington at Northern Ireland another case in point. 

The FAI also wiser from their time with the playing legend that was Steve Staunton, during his time as Irish boss. 

Younger managers prefer the day to day action of club football and the long intervals at National level are very frustrating. At one time too the national jobs attracted lesser pay-packets. But those days have also changed. Especially at the FAI where they now offer princely sums for a managerial post and a backroom team. All rather disproportionate for a national side ranked 60th or so in the FIFA World Rankings.

But it is more as a pundit that O’Neill has gained household fame. Perhaps also as a former undergraduate of Law at Queens University, where he studied during his time at Distillery. Even though he never completed his studies the cerebral reputation has always followed him, as he is always thoughtful and unique in his perspective at times. A bonus which has kept him at the forefront of TV punditry when out of the managerial game. 

Undoubtedly that legacy of the Clough era - a man who thought, lived and worked football – also shared very clear views on how the game should be played with his apprentices. Many traits which O'Neill has inherited. Very particularly about the passing game. One very close to Clough’s heart. 

"If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he'd have put grass up there." 

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