Brendan Crossan: Despite Danish nightmare Martin O'Neill has earned the right to stay on with Ireland
FOR the last four years I’ve seen the many different faces of Martin O’Neill.
Last year, I got a phone call from Collie Devlin, the Ballinderry footballer.
I always got on well with Collie.
Over the years, the former Derry forward has pulled me out of a couple of holes before and after games with a few quotes.
Nothing was ever too much trouble.
So when he called me to ask a favour, I listened.
As part of a hugely ambitious fundraising drive to honour his late brother Aaron, who tragically died of meningitis the previous year, Collie asked was there any chance Martin O’Neill would do a piece to camera so they could show it on the big screen during their big gala dinner.
The funds raised would be shared between ‘Meningitis Now’ and a new 4G training pitch at the Ballinderry club that would be named after Collie's younger brother.
Even though O’Neill was a native of Kilrea and was a fine Gaelic footballer in his teenage years, Collie’s request came right on doorstep of the Euro 2016 finals and so his chances were slim.
I sent off an email, not with any great expectations, to the FAI communications manager Ian Mallon explaining the request.
Within a week, Ian had emailed me back with a three-minute video of O’Neill paying tribute to young Aaron and the Ballinderry club’s worthy fundraising venture.
It wasn’t the usual platitudes you’d expect, as it was clear from the video that O’Neill had done a bit of research.
It was O’Neill at his lyrical best.
Collie was over the moon.
There has always been an inherent human decency about O’Neill.
During his four years in charge of Republic of Ireland, the media is afforded only fleeting glances of O’Neill.
Reporters are allowed to watch the first 15 minutes of the team’s training sessions and are invited to attend press conferences in the lead up to big games.
Occasionally, O'Neill would agree to do the odd sit-down interview with newspaper reporters.
From one press briefing to the next, you don’t know what you’re getting from O'Neill.
They can range from hilarious to sombre to spiky affairs.
In my experience, most managers are control freaks. O’Neill is no different in this regard.
Generally, he doesn’t particularly enjoy press conferences because he can’t be in complete control of them.
At the slightest hint of criticism, O’Neill’s guard goes up.
You can see how Brian Clough had his hands full with a player like O’Neill back in their Nottingham Forest days together.
O’Neill is very good at fighting his own corner and will vociferously defend his managerial reputation.
At a recent press briefing where he announced his squad for the upcoming play-off games with Denmark, a reporter asked for his reaction to Keith Andrews describing him as a “lucky” manager.
“That’s complete and utter b******s,” O’Neill hit back.
“I have a career in the game. I don’t know why I have to go and say these things. I’ve had to fight for everything as a player, every single day. It’s no hardship… I won competitions for Leicester. I managed a team in the UEFA Cup final…”
Even at his unveiling as Republic of Ireland manager in the Gibson Hotel four years ago, O’Neill spent quite a bit of time hammering his successor at Sunderland, Paolo Di Canio, after the Italian complained that the players weren’t fit when he arrived.
Perhaps he wasn’t expecting the bear-pit criticism that every Republic of Ireland manager faces from the RTE studios.
Over the last four years, the media was left with the impression that O’Neill regarded himself above their criticism.
In many ways, O’Neill’s reign is a mirror image of Giovanni Trapattoni’s insofar as results were the be-all and end-all.
There was little redemption to be found in the performances themselves.
On countless occasions, O’Neill and Trapattoni’s Ireland teams played really poorly but still got results.
And they were hailed for moulding teams that punched above their weight most days.
Occasionally, their teams got exposed – sometimes badly exposed – and because the respective styles of play were so primitive, their falls were inclined to be that much harder.
It doesn’t help that O’Neill is competing in a field where the younger, more scientific manager is the new rage.
O’Neill is old school.
When old school fails, your congregation loses faith quicker.
Across the two play-off legs with Denmark, the Republic of Ireland’s playing style appeared one without hope.
They are a team not calibrated to attack, which is probably the greatest indictment of O'Neill's reign.
The midfield is generally by-passed.
In four years, the team’s play hasn’t evolved in any meaningful way.
They almost exclusively rely on set pieces to get results.
Wes Hoolahan, the ageing playmaker, has been often held up as a popular protest, the glowing antidote to O’Neill’s sparse philosophy.
If anything, their attacking play has regressed over the last 12 months, which is partially down to personnel but not entirely.
And yet, the weird dichotomy in O’Neill’s case is that he probably would have been hailed as Jack Charlton’s equal had he managed back-to-back qualifications on Tuesday night.
There are no finer lines than in the unforgiving environs of international football management.
While O’Neill has a verbal agreement to remain as Republic of Ireland manager until 2020, he has some soul-searching to do over the coming weeks.
He is still handsomely paid for his services - better than many comparable international teams – but there isn’t a lot of talent coming down the tracks.
The natural end for Trapattoni was Euro 2012 but the Italian stayed on for one qualification campaign too many.
O’Neill won't want to outstay his welcome.
He might feel that this is the natural end for him as Ireland manager, especially given the humiliating manner of Tuesday night’s defeat.
Conversely, that might be a driving force for him to stay on board – not to leave on such a sour note.
There is still another club job left in him, but given the volatile nature of the English Premiership, a manager’s shelf life can be brutally short.
Undoubtedly international management suits O’Neill.
When the dust settles he will probably stay with the Republic.
In fairness, he’s had enough good results over the last four years to make his own decision.