Martin O'Neill's aloof management has Ireland on brink of World Cup
What does Martin O'Neill actually do? Such a question has been asked quite a bit of late in Ireland, preparing for its national team's World Cup playoff trip to Denmark. Having presided over a successful qualification for Euro 2016 and reaching the knockouts in France, Ireland's manager has his team on the brink of reaching a first World Cup finals since 2002 but deep mystery surrounds his methods.
Like the late, legendary Brian Clough, with whom O'Neill won two European Cups as a player at Nottingham Forest, the secrets lie in being mercurial, unpredictable, unreadable, enigmatic and more. When Ireland drew Denmark in the playoff draw, a simple equation of stopping Christian Eriksen's attacking creativity and scoring past Kasper Schmeichel seemed the obvious route to success. But that will not be O'Neill's plan. In fact, those who have worked with him say there is never really a plan.
"All players will do team shape with their clubs but they don't do any team shape with Ireland," said former Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given in an interview with former teammate Richie Sadlier on the Second Captains podcast last week. "The team comes out on matchday and they play and they get the results.
"It's weird. For example, we are playing Denmark. What's their system? You would normally meet up in the first couple of days and do team shape and just walk through stuff. Stuff like 'Eriksen likes to drop in the hole' and 'Schmeichel likes to zing it early,' all that kind of stuff, but they don't and I know they won't. I've not got an answer, that's just what he does. It's his management style and it's worked for him."
Does O'Neill deliver brow-beating motivational pre-match speeches that inspire his team to put body and soul on the line?
Brighton central defender Shane Duffy gave a heroic performance in Ireland's final group game in Cardiff against Wales, but said this week in an interview with The Independent that O'Neill "doesn't really say much. He kept mentioning how big the World Cup was. He kept mentioning that, and everyone got on board."
O'Neill doesn't feel that being constantly in the ear of his players is anything like a necessity. "They know I'm watching," he told the Daily Telegraph this week. "People might have said I'm a bit aloof, but I'm among the players without inconveniencing them by telling them what to do all the time."
In an era where sharply dressed coaches freely talk philosophy and tactical jargon has become a regular feature of news conferences, O'Neill, whose usual touchline attire is a tracksuit with socks pulled high up, stands apart. In three decades in management, he has never moved with the times, never feeling a requirement to. The great managers of his playing era, Clough and Bob Paisley at Liverpool, were men that players were never allowed to get too close to. Indeed, Clough and O'Neill never warmed to each other at Forest. The former law student's intelligence irked his manager but he has long admitted a debt to Clough.
Aside from being sacked after 14 months at Sunderland, which seems no disgrace considering the revolving door of managers on Wearside, each team O'Neill has managed (from non-league Grantham to Ireland) has improved, including winning two League Cups with Leicester and taking Celtic to four league titles and narrowly losing the final of the 2003 UEFA Cup final to Jose Mourinho's Porto. As with Ireland, none of those teams were star-studded with talent. Instead, success was delivered by hard-working players reaching above their level.
Throughout those club days, he had former Forest teammate John Robertson as assistant but another graduate from the Clough school of hard knocks has been alongside him with Ireland. Roy Keane "does a lot more coaching people," according to Given, while "Martin does a lot more sitting back" but is nothing resembling a tactical, philosophical power behind the throne.
Keane, whose favourite Sir Alex Ferguson team talk was "Lads, it's Tottenham," joked this week in Ireland's training camp that "I make lots of tea for the staff and stuff. What else do I do? Not too much."
Such detachment can cause annoyance, with veteran TV pundit Eamon Dunphy last week calling Keane "a cabaret act" for the former captain being better known for his press calls than any contribution to the team, but O'Neill and Keane would both point to the results. "It's about saying the right thing at the right time, the right tone, the right message," is how Keane described O'Neill in the heat of battle. "You simplify things."
Whatever the complications of his character or the mystery of his methods, the simple truth remains: O'Neill has Ireland on the brink of being in Russia next summer.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.