As the O’Neill/Keane managerial duo is announced for the Ireland job, I ponder whether these twin appointments will launch Ireland to the heights of a bygone era or simply paper over the cracks of a more deep-rooted problem within the structure of Irish football..
I think it’s fair to say on the face of it, the O’Neill/Keane appointments don’t make complete sense. While I admittedly have never been as passionate a fan of the Irish national side as many of my friends or family, I do genuinely want to see Irish football grow. I think the first question that needs addressing is what defines success for Ireland, and thus for O’Neill/Keane.
In spite of the recent years of turgid football displayed from Ireland, the fans have always believed they can do better, despite the varying quality of players that have featured. Whilst for all managers, results have to be of utmost priority, that’s not the fans job and we should always demand for the ‘spectacle’ to look as good as possible. What I’m getting at is while O’Neill and Keane are being brought in to reinvigorate a side dead on its feet, what can they bring to the table to really excite the fans both in the short and long term?
Eamon Dunphy was as big a critic of Trapattoni’s football as any – and with good reason. Yet Dunphy has welcomed the new appointment, especially that of O’Neill, and this is where I begin to question people’s perception of O’Neill and what he’s going to bring to the table. O’Neill sides have played some great football over the years, especially his Celtic side who famously won the treble, and his Villa side played exciting football, but his Sunderland side displayed all the attributes of an old fashioned style which highlighted that motivation will only get you so far.
Football is about more than running and crossing a lot and it was certainly evident there, to say the least. The prime example of O’Neill’s football under Sunderland? Look no further than James McClean. After an exciting start for Sunderland, the inevitable transfer links to Liverpool, Spurs et al followed. Eventually he was found out; his ability was limited and he has since moved to Wigan in the Championship, just as O’Neill’s Sunderland were also found out. O’Neill’s primitive tactics proving his once running-heavy side became lethargic and were overran by Premier League sides who began to deploy a three-man midfield usually in a 4-2-3-1 system (Rafa Benitez was one of the first Premier League managers to openly advocate for such a system – these days most sides deploy such a system).
Perhaps my views of O’Neill come across as harsh, or even aloof with regards to tactics, and I’d accept that may seem the case for some, but I can only judge on his latest work and I’m unsure it’s going to maximise the potential of this Ireland side in the long term. Perhaps that brings us back to my question of defining success for this Ireland side and what exactly is possible for a manager, especially an international manager, to transform (with regards to style), without any major structural changes which may go beyond his remit.
Football journalist and Sunderland fan Jonathan Wilson appeared on The Second Captains podcast earlier this week to provide his opinion on O’Neill and if he can be a success for Ireland. He was questioned where exactly it all went wrong for O’Neill at Sunderland. Wilson told of a lack of fitness from Sunderland toward the end of his tenure. Wilson also spoke of O’Neill’s rocky relationship with owner Ellis Short as he was ‘very hard to get a hold of; never answered his phone’. Such characteristics point to O’Neill’s resistance to change within the game – a manager perfect for a bygone era perhaps. Nevertheless, encouragingly Wilson believes O’Neill’s managerial style may be well suited to international management as it is a ‘simpler game’ where tactics play a lesser extent.
It seems the general conclusion is that O’Neill is better suited to international manager than I initially thought. While I would have preferred the enigmatic Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa for the Ireland job, that is perhaps an unrealistic option. Bielsa’s aggressive pressing system at Atletic Bilbao was a joy to watch in their pomp, yet their downfall was burnout, ironically similar to O’Neill’s Sunderland in that regard.
The star attraction in these appointments is undoubtedly Roy Keane who takes the reigns as the assistant manager. An Ireland career with more headlines than one could imagine, he is enigmatic in every way possible. Despite my respect for Keane as a player I question his appointment more so than that of O’Neill. Keane is brutally honest; if you don’t play well he will tell you. If you back out of a tackle you’re called a coward. It’s no holds barred. Just ask Liam Lawrence, on the brink of an international career while playing for Sunderland he heavily criticised Keane’s man-management. The stories don’t stop there; there are a plethora of anecdotes of poor man-management coming out of the Ipswich camp from his time managing there.
Speaking on The Second Captains podcast this week former Ireland manager Brian Kerr spoke of his relationship with Keane following his return from retirement to the Ireland set-up. Kerr’s recollection of Keane during his time is of a co-operative, more relaxed Keane, who performed his duties not dissimilar to that of an assistant manager – a second manager on the pitch perhaps? Also encouragingly, Niall Quinn who also appeared on the podcast spoke positively of Keane. Although they never had the best personal relationship, Quinn praises Keane for his time at Sunderland, noting the close relationship that he had with the academy. It’s been said Keane knew ‘every academy player, their positions and their family members’. This sort of interest in players will certainly be welcomed by the Ireland fans who found Trapattoni’s reluctance to search for more players infuriating – most notably that of Wes Hoolahan and James McCarthy.
It seems that again the hope for Keane is that his motivational characteristics will be more suited to international management than club football. Keane’s Sunderland and Ipswich sides didn’t play great football either, yet for a time at least, it brought results. The hope is that by taking the role as assistant manager is a sign of change within Keane. A sign that Keane has had to swallow his pride and not allow outside influences to effect his focus and desire.
When I weigh up everything with regards to the O’Neill/Keane appointments, I certainly begin to finally formulate the idea of what I want from the national side, and what all fans want, and that is some fun. Despite the great sing-songs in Poznan last summer among the fans, the football was anything but, and that was deeply disheartening for everyone. Right now Irish football fans envisage lots of fun. They think of O’Neill jumping for joy after a goal like he bloody well always does, they think of Keane… shouting. I however, just don’t know. I live in hope.