Friday, 8 November 2013

O'Neill and Keane: Dream Team or Car Crash?

The announcement of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane taking over management of the Republic of Ireland was made on the evening of the 5th of November. Guy Fawkes night in the UK. The film, V For Vendetta, based on this particular date features a particularly poignant line from Natalie Portman: "This country needs more than a building right now. It needs hope".

Thankfully, Delaney stopped short of trying to blow up Leinster House

Given recent developments surrounding the national football team, Ireland needed more than a managerial appointment this November 5th, it needed hope and for once the FAI have delivered.

The appointment of Martin O'Neill as manager had been mooted and expected since before Trapattoni had left the job. Had they merely announced him as manager it would not have grabbed half as much attention and instead raised questions about why it took them two months to secure his signature (questions that are still valid but unlikely to be asked). However the appointment of Roy Keane as assistant manager provides a smokescreen for more of their inadequacies and takes some of the spotlight off Martin O'Neill.

The first official photo of the 'Dream Team'

The Keane part of the O'Neill-Keane duo is undoubtedly the major talking point for the general public. In a sense, it buries the final hatchet from Saipan 2002, more than 11 years later. Keane made his peace with Niall Quinn in 2006, going to work for him as Sunderland manager. It was in this role that he also reconciled with Mick McCarthy, publicly shaking his hand after his Sunderland side faced Wolves and admitting the matter between them was closed. FAI chief John Delaney had incurred Keane's wrath has recently as 2009 following you-know-what when he had the audacity to "preach about honesty and integrity", something Keane, then Ipswich manager, found this rather amusing given Delaney's role in the Saipan incident and the lack of loyalty he felt he was shown.

That's now been put to bed too and Roy Keane finds himself in the employ of the FAI. A scenario which I found totally unimaginable as recently as a week ago. I am reliably informed that temperatures recorded in Hell this week were among the lowest since records began.

As player and manager, Keane has never been fond of the FAI

It's unusual for a manager to be overshadowed by his assistant but it's certainly the case here. Keane is the bigger name on this managerial ticket despite being the far less proven manager. I don't think O'Neill will mind too much, he'll be focusing on getting down to work as quietly and efficiently as possible whilst letting Roy take the media focus. Perhaps this was his intention when he approached the media volatile Corkman to be his no.2. I don't think for one minute that O'Neill needs Keane as his assistant. It was both a clever ploy to focus the media's glare elsewhere and perhaps a two year learning program with a view to Roy taking the top job in 2016.

Keane will get all the attention but make no mistake, O'Neill is "the boss, the gaffer, what he says goes and at the end of the day, the buck stops with him". Hopefully he proves himself much more capable than the man who delivered that quote.

O'Neill has been out of football since his sacking as Sunderland manager in March 2013. The general consensus seems to be that he failed at Sunderland but inspecting his record there and comparing him with those who came before and after him tells a different story. He took over with the club just above the relegation zone and took them to the fringes of the top half in his first few months. Once survival was assured however the team seemed to take their foot of the gas and slumped to a poor run of no wins in their final eight league games, nevertheless finishing a respectable 13th.

His second season at the helm also went a lot better than people give him credit for. He signed Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson and the club were 11th in the table following a win over Man City. However they embarked on yet another run of eight winless games which this time resulted in his sacking.

O'Neill's touchline enthusiasm has been a defining feature for him

O'Neill's Sunderland were predominantly a counter attack team. He knew they lacked the players to play creative expressive football and instead his team tended to sit back before hitting opponents on the counter attack. Even against teams of a similar level to themselves they generally enjoyed less possession but were much more efficient when they had the ball.

James McClean is one player who really flourished under O'Neill and will be thrilled at the prospect of working with the man who gave him his big break. There's nothing a natural winger loves more than space to run into. A winger playing in a counter attacking side should get this in abundance. Adam Johnson on the right flank enjoyed the best spell of his career under O'Neill, rejuvenated following his ill-advised move to Man City the previous season.

What to expect from O'Neill's Ireland:

  • A defence orientated side as it was under Trapattoni but with considerably less emphasis on the hideous long ball game, more focused on counter attacks down the flanks to cut teams open.
  • Expect a huge defensive work rate in most games. Ciaran Clark in particular now has the opportunity to step up and make a name for himself.
  • 4-4-2, with the two central midfielders looking to play a predominantly supporting game for the attackers. The Everton pair of Gibson and McCarthy being the most obvious choices for these slots.
  • Two out-and-out wingers. Wingers that will also have to do their share of defensive  duties but be alert and fit enough to punish teams on the counter. McClean and Brady or Walters. Perhaps Pilkington.
  • A strike partnership. O'Neill is very old-fashioned and a firm believer in the dying breed that is strike partnerships. Keane and Long. 
  • A generally organised and well-knit team with a real sense of unity and togetherness.
  • Significantly fewer ostracised players. O'Neill's primary focus may be defensive organisation but he sure knows how to use his best attacking players.
How O'Neill's Ireland might look.
Let's not kid ourselves, this Irish team is nothing special. There's a few decent Premier League players in there but not a great deal to get excited about. Anthony Stokes is the only current squad member playing in the Champions League. Of the starting XI shown above, two are currently playing at second tier level. This is precisely why I think O'Neill is perfect for this group of players. He's proven, not as a manager who you'd back bring trophies upon trophies with the big English clubs, but as a manager who can help an average side reach their full potential.

At Leicester he won two League Cups with a mid to lower table Premier League side. He turned Villa from relegation candidates to legitimate Champions League contenders. Even at Celtic, he brought and SPL side to the final of the UEFA Cup, losing out in extra time to Mourinho's Porto (who'd win the Champions League a year later). None of these sides have enjoyed nearly as much success since he left. Villa are back to where they were before he came along, Leicester have long since been relegated and Celtic sank to the doldrums of European football for the best part of a decade.

The ultimate question is will the "dream team" work? There are a lot of sub-questions to this. How will Roy Keane cope with being a number 2? How will the both of them find international management? Is this squad actually any better than we've seen in the past few years? How 

There are two possible ends I see to this. One involves everything working just fine with O'Neill successfully guiding the team to Euro 2016 before handing over the reigns to Keane. The alternate scenario ends with a spectacular fall out involving Roy Keane and the FAI or the manager or several players or just about anyone who annoyed him on that particular morning.

Keane's fierce and uncompromising attitude has always brought him either glorious success (the majority of his playing career) or catastrophic failure (the end of his playing career, Ipswich Town). There doesn't seem to be a middle ground for him so the FAI have taken a big risk in sanctioning his appointment as no.2. Should he fail to comply, the sense of hope and excitement that grips the nation now will be shattered. Should he not cause any trouble, and Martin O'Neill can do his thing as a manager I actually think the team will benefit. Enormously. 

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