Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Neill: We're Keane to get going

By Daniel McDonnell

Amid the fuss and excitement around the dawn of a fresh era, the turn of events which has restored the novelty value of international football, it must be remembered that it's all a little new for Martin O'Neill as well.

This is professional football, but not as he knows it.

It struck him the other day that when his team flies back from Poland next Tuesday night, he won't see them as a group again until March.

While he has a reputation as a thinker who ponders the smallest details, it's more contemplation time than he would like between work assignments.

That's why, in terms of preparation, the sprint into this November double header will be followed by a marathon period of evaluation.

His public want answers, and they want them now with an insatiable demand for discussion of what comes next.

Yet in the course of another entertaining hour yesterday, there was a sense that, ultimately, O'Neill will be considering a lot of the questions that have been thrown his way when the games with Latvia and the Poles are out of the way.

Tactical approach, squad selections, coaching dynamics and recruitment strategies are all up for review. For a man who has spent his life as a manager in club football, it is quite turnaround to be relishing the next international friendly date.

"They were the bane of my life," he admitted. "John O'Shea would come up to me at Sunderland and say 'I think we've got another one' and I would say, 'When? Like Christmas Eve?' I mean, honestly, they just appeared out of the calendar.

"Now," he adds with a smile, "I just think that they are the best thing ever."

He can't re-invent the wheel in the space of four days. Indeed, in time, he may find that it's impossible to make radical alterations to the modus operandi in the limited period of time with players that this brief offers.

The final days of Trapattoni prompted a broad debate about style of play and what can be achieved with the group that O'Neill and Roy Keane oversaw for the first time yesterday, a debate which was given an outside perspective when Joachim Loew offered his view that the Irish DNA effectively makes a switch of manager irrelevant because the players will always operate in the same way.

In the course of a long response, O'Neill neither agreed or disagreed with the assessment of the German boss.

"I've got my own ideas on it," he said.

"I think each nation has their own DNA and we have to work with that. I think he means that there's a 'get up at em' type attitude, but do I think Irish players are capable of expressing themselves? I would hope so.

"There are a number of ways of playing it. I don't want to tell you something here and then find out we're totally and utterly incapable of doing it, if that's the case.

"Please don't let me make big promises. Eventually, we have certain players to work with. It's not as if we can buy six or seven by the time September comes. I was asked about implementing some kind of philosophy through the heart of it but, in that, you've got to have a little bit of flexibility.

"It's a long winded way of me saying that I don't want to be inflexible on what we do and then find we're incapable of doing it."

Critics of O'Neill have argued that he is too conservative, a point he strongly contests.

Speaking at length in Malahide's Grand Hotel, he detailed the variety of situations he has encountered through the course of his long career in football.

He referenced the contrast between the frequently one dimensional approach of the Northern Ireland team he captained and the technically astute Nottingham Forest team which captured two European Cups, triumphing in the latter with a lone striker and a packed midfield.

"Brian Clough played with Garry Birtles on his own up front and he wasn't calling it anything novel at the time," said O'Neill, referencing that approach's current popularity. "People have different systems of play, I think what we'll try and do is find a system that suits the players."

As is likely to be the case for no matter how long O'Neill is in charge, Keane's name cropped up in the press conference.

O'Neill admitted his surprise that no club had taken a chance to hand Keane a return to management.

He said: "I am. I know that he feels things didn't go very well at Ipswich for him.

"I think sometimes it's forgotten as well that in his first season, he actually got Sunderland promoted and did very well. Some of those things get lost in time and people want to forget that.

"I was surprised that he hadn't had another opportunity, that somebody wouldn't have taken a chance with him.

"But who knows what might happen here?

"He's here, he is focused on it. He wants to do it."

The former Manchester United midfielder was at the training ground by 9.30am on yesterday morning, 90 minutes before the players were due to begin work under the new regime for the first time, and the initial feedback after a session in which he played a leading role was positive.

O'Neill said: "Roy? Well, I sent him there early," before adding: "I did not, he wanted to go.

"He was with the goalkeeping coach and Seamus McDonagh (pictured left) is always early. Seamus would have started at 5.30am this morning if he could, so Roy wanted to go with him just to get a few things organised.

"He was very focused, he was looking forward to it and he was talking a great deal about it, and true to his word, he was there."

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