Martin O’Neill on managing Ireland, the summer fixtures and working with Roy Keane
IN Ireland, where one man’s hero can be another’s villian, Roy Keane’s name continues to polarise opinion.
So while Saipan is distant in terms of geography, it remains fresh in everyone’s memory, a byword for a sporting civil war that highlighted the lengths Keane would go in order to prove a point.
Since then he has fallen out with Alex Ferguson and Ellis Short, patched things up with Niall Quinn and John Delaney and somehow — 12 years after tearing strips off the FAI — ended up as their employee.
Yet even though it is the Association who pay his wages, it is one man — Martin O’Neill — who he answers to and after seven months of this unusual but fascinating alliance, the expected split and explosion of tempers has yet to occur.
“Am I scared of Roy Keane?” O’Neill asked The Irish Post last week. “Of course I’m not. I would not have brought him in here in the first place if I was. I really like Roy, like him a lot, enjoy his company immensely and love his enthusiasm.
“I’ve been reasonably steadfast and constant in saying that Roy will be a manager again. And I think this [job] has been good for him — as has his ITV work — in terms of raising his profile again. People are throwing his name around for other jobs. Others are asking about him all the time which is great for him.
“But I don’t see him going anywhere for a while. He wants to do well with us because he has been a competitor all his life and when I had my first discussion with him about taking this job, I touched on the whole Saipan episode and he dismissed it fairly quickly.
“His precise words were ‘No, let’s go and do this’. So his enthusiasm has been up there. And I might occasionally have spoken sarcastically about Saipan and said things like ‘Ah, brilliant the bibs are here’, and he has taken it in good humour.
“To an extent it is a question you would have to ask him as to whether he feels he has unfinished business with Ireland. He certainly has unfinished business with management and will go back into it one day. At this moment this is where he wants to be and if he divided opinion years ago then so be it. The fact is he is an Irishman who wants to do well for his country.”
The same can be said of O’Neill. While he holds a British passport and is deeply proud of the fact he was Northern Ireland’s captain for half a decade, he has never at any stage hid away from his GAA or nationalist background. “I feel Northern Irish,” he once said.
Yet when this job came up he wanted it, while nonetheless sending out feelers about how his crossing of the border in physical as well as emotional terms would go down with the patrons at Windsor Park.
Seven months on, that emotive issue has faded away. But the subject of Keane never disappears.
“I can understand why people constantly want to talk about Roy,” said O’Neill, “because he has been a tremendous servant to the country, a fabulous player and is a fascinating character. As a pair, we just get on really well — as we did when we worked together at ITV.
“I have been able to bounce ideas off him, asked him what his view is and it might just have differed somewhat from what I thought and might have made me start to think a bit in a different direction, for good or bad.
“It would not necessarily change my opinion. We would have different opinions on players in general but overall he has been great to work with. His enthusiasm is fairly unswerving. He is intelligent, good company — a proper football man. But to a large extent, when we are going about our week-to-week business of watching games, we just leave each other alone.
“We’d speak on the phone regularly enough and would meet up every now and then in Birmingham — a kind of half-way-point between my house and his. Both of us have found the job a little strange because we have been used to day-to-day jobs at club level. This has been less intense for the most part — but all that will change this week.”
It certainly will and so after seven months waiting for the job to start, the famine has turned into a feast. A quartet of games — including this Saturday’s clash with Italy in Craven Cottage — has offered O’Neill and Keane the opportunity to assess 28 players and to figure out a definite game-plan.
“People say I’m a 4-4-2 man but I used 3-5-2 for years at Celtic and Leicester,” says O’Neill. “I’m open to change and will try things out over the course of these four matches because this is the time to do that — not in September when the Euros start.”
The actual mechanics of who does what inside O’Neill’s camp is interesting. Two of his entourage — Steve Walford and Steve Guppy — have hooked up with him for this tour, having worked with him before, Walford since his Wycombe days, Guppy more recently at Sunderland.
Renowned as a specialist in one-on-one training sessions, O’Neill intends to get Guppy to work with James McClean to see if the winger can be converted into a forward.
Walford, meanwhile, will conduct the majority of the training sessions with Keane and O’Neill stepping in to make tactical points. “In the dressing room, at half-time say, I’m the one who speaks,” says O’Neill. “Otherwise I’m not earning my money.”
This summer he will earn it the hard way — travelling from America, where Ireland play Costa Rica and Portugal — to Brazil to watch the Germans play the Portuguese in their World Cup group game.
“I am looking for a happy medium on this trip. Of course, you want the players to have a relaxed atmosphere in terms of having nothing else to worry about except for the games we will play.
“But there has to be intensity about it as well because these games against Italy, Portugal and Costa Rica will be really difficult. And if we are not focussed, there might be serious consequences.
“So while it is great to go on a little trip like this, it is not just a jolly-up at the end of the season.
“This, for me, is preparation for the Euros. And I think the players will realise that and bring intensity to the games.”
And then O’Neill smiles. “They wouldn’t want to go too bonkers if Keane is around, would they?”