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O’Neill providing old school leadership for resurgent Irish

ByPhil Smith

Nov 23, 2014

Tackles flew in left, right and centre, regardless of the path or position of the ball. Two managers and one very angry assistant of considerable notoriety cajoled, roared and pushed their team through a battle of severe mental and physical exertion. Celtic Park tremored with fervour and full blooded approval. Amongst the delight at such an engaging encounter, however, it was impossible not to feel a sense mourning and despair. Crikey, they really don’t play football like this all that much anymore. Gordon Strachan wryly observed before kick off that he didn’t think the two managers would be too fussed about who won the possession battle. He wasn’t wrong. If the centre of the park is where Pep Guardiola’s ballet takes place, here it was transformed into a bear pit.

Scotland and Ireland are both teams rejuvenated under their new management. Ireland may have come out on the losing side, but it is impossible not to revel in watching Martin O’Neill using his motivating skills and unique aura of understated charisma to draw every last ounce of physical and mental strength from his players. Football management through iron will, force of personality and no shortage of fear factor. Straight from the school of Ol’ Big ‘Ed Brian Clough. Looking around British football now you can’t help but wonder, where have the disciples gone?

That is not to say that there are no charismatic managers in football anymore, just that their profile and priorities seem different. Jose Mourinho and Guardiola may draw extraordinary commitment and loyalty from his players, but their mystique is derived initially from their staggeringly sharp tactical minds. The age of Clough is gone, and probably will never return.

British football used to produce a gluttony of managers, all of whom seemed to share basic traits, social backgrounds and footballing philosophies. Stein, Shankly, Paisley and Clough all built dynasties through an ability to control a club from top to bottom. To set the tone, dominate and impose. The manager may have always been used a target for fan ridicule and a shield for those in the boardroom, but they often were able to exert extraordinary influence over a club.

Basic changes in British football have taken this away. Club owners, once content to work in the shadows, have now entered into an age of extraordinary narcissism, demanding personal attention, praise and glory. Time and time again, managers are undermined in public. Of course, those at the top of a club’s hierarchy have always caused strife, with Clough experiencing famously volcanic relations with those above him. Nevertheless, the new brand of owner, brandishing their club like a child with a new toy seem unlikely to indulge or submit to the kind of personality of a Clough or a Shankly.

Similarly, the way player recruitment has been transformed, with Directors of Football becoming increasingly prominent and removing a key tool of the manager’s armoury. Managers may still be the focus of fan and press discussion, but in real terms it seems to be an office of diminishing prestige and real relevance. The emphasis and benchmark for young managers and coaches seems to shifting towards tactical innovation and excellence, a trend that may lead to a welcome advancement in the standard of the British game and a much needed greater influence on technical skills from an early age.

Yet one of the manager’s key roles is to maintain morale and energise a football club. To rouse the fans, to build a connection between them and the players, and to transmit a sense of identity of purpose. Around Sunderland, you’ll find a splattering of cards for sale, quoting Brian Clough of his fervent desire to manage the club he represented with such distinction. That he never made it up the A19 remains a source of ire and frustration to fans of a certain generation. When Martin O’Neill arrived, the boyhood Sunderland fan and apparent heir to Clough, and started a trademark revival on the pitch, the sense of history being both made and put right simultaneously was intoxicating. A story emerged of Martin O’Neill and his staff making a pilgrimage to Roker Park, the old stadium of Sunderland, to ‘search for the soul of the club.’  The club shook with an energy and excitement that bordered on the absurd.

O’Neill was never able to build that empire, however. The goalposts had shifted too much from his days of glory at Wycombe, Leicester, and to a lesser extent, Aston Villa. Chairman Ellis Short could not resist the urge to tinker, and set into motion a disastrous sequence of events that saw his influence undermined. Matched with on-field struggles, the energy ebbed away. What a tragedy if this is the final chapter of O’Neill’s story as a club manager.

So his talents now wind their way to Ireland, an ageing team with an apparent dearth of creative talent. A team in thrilling need of an old school manger like O’Neill. A living definition of football romanticism, it is a fitting odyssey for the Irishman at this stage of his career.

Watching the likes of Diego Simeone conduct a team and fan base at Atletico Madrid to extraordinary heights through a primal cocktail of perspiration, willpower and no little talent seems a clear indication of what is missing in the Premier League at the moment. Amongst all the talk surrounding how to restore the soul to British game, through safe standing, ticket prices to ownership issues, that magnificent Scotland versus Ireland encounter should be a reminder that having a manager who can connect and relate with fans on a personal level can be a major part of the puzzle.

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