Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Evolution, not Revolution......

So, as the dust settles on the first 10 days of the Martin O'Neill era, have we seen signs of the changes the people were baying for at the back end of Giovanni Trapattoni's reign? Prior commitments in Donegal had unfortunately kept me away from the arrival of O'Neill and his headline grabbing choice of assistant at Lansdowne Road for the first game under his charge, so I had to rely on TV highlights and conversations with those I normally attend with to gauge an opinion. What I saw looked broadly positive with the fact that Wes Hoolohan was employed in behind Robbie Keane, along with the defence and midfield as a whole playing further up the pitch giving the central midfielders more opportunity to collect the ball from defence and a different option to play the ball into. There was a decent tempo to the Irish play and the atmosphere was definitely helped by the excitement generated by the new management team. Without the new team in place, a friendly against the team ranked 117th in the world would not have looked an attractive night out in mid-November and while the official attendance announced at 37,100 looked to be slightly over estimated given the empty seats on display, there's no doubt that the appointment of O'Neill probably accounted for the guts of 10,000 of that number and you could say the same again for his appointment of Roy Keane as his number 2.
It was a familiar feeling with the new era starting with a goal from Robbie Keane after 20 minutes (his fifth in a row at home) and it looked like this was an opportunity for the floodgates to open, given how poor the opposition had looked till then. The goal was followed by a couple of chances for Keane and for the impressive James McClean but half time arrived with the score at 1-0. The second half began with a similar pattern, Ireland again creating chances (again mainly involving McClean) but it took until the 68th minute for the second goal to finally arrive. Aiden McGeady, who'd also been impressive on the flanks, was gifted the ball through a misplaced pass and drilled it into the bottom corner. With the game safe, although it must be said that Latvia had never really threatened the Irish goal, O'Neill rang the changes, introducing Andy Reid, Jon Walters and Shane Long on for McGeady, Keane and Hoolahan and it wasn't long before 2 of the subs were involved in the move and goal of the match. Walters did very well to play in Seamus Coleman on the overlap and he hit a perfect ball to the feet of Long who finished well at the far post. More changes followed with Paul Green, Anthony Stokes and Kevin Doyle coming on for Whelan, McClean (a worthy Man of the Match for me) and McCarthy. Stokes did his best to try and get off the mark with a couple of efforts but there was little else of note in the remaining few minutes and the 3-0 final scoreline was an encouraging start, judging by the highlights at least.

That said, I found some of the reaction afterwards from some quarters, including the RTE panel, ridiculously OTT. The opposition were pretty much as poor as you could get. The last 4 games of the Trap era against similarly ranked opposition ended in 4-1 victories against Oman and the Faroe Islands, a 3-0 victory against the Faroes again and a 4-0 victory against Georgia so putting 3 or 4 goals away against the minnows wasn't an issue, even under the safety first approach of Trap. This seems to have been airbrushed from history in the disappointment of the final 2 games he was in charge for against Sweden and Austria. Trap's problem was getting results (and victories in particular) against the teams ranked above us. However, it was encouraging to see us mix our approach up a bit against those lower ranked teams who we clearly have the ability to pass our way around.

And so onto last night and the return to the scene of last years heartbreak in Poznan for the first away game of the new era. With holidays thin on the ground coming towards the end of the year, I decided against being one of the 200 hardy souls that made the return trip and settled instead for watching the game from the comfort of the couch with a few friends. Although O'Neill had said that he intended giving everyone in the squad a run out over the 2 games, it must be said that the team selected was very reminiscent of what would have been played by his predecessor with a flat 4-4-2 including a striker out on the right in Walters, who was Captain for the night, and starts for 2 of the players who were given far too much stick in some quarters for allegedly being Trap's pets, in the aforementioned Green and Stephen Ward. I think it's safe to say that, had Trap still been in charge, the team selection would have been met with howls of derision on the message boards and comments sections of online media! But hey, it's a fresh start and everyone's got a clean slate. Plus, in my opinion, it was important for the manager to have a look at everyone in the squad especially considering the squad was picked by Noel King rather than O'Neill.

Before the kick off, the esteem in which the Irish fans are held in Poland was clearly visible by a lovely gesture by the 30,000 or so home fans who applauded all the way through Amhrán na bhFiann. However, once the game kicked off,  it wasn't just the team picked that was reminiscent of the worst of the Trap era. Ireland actually started quite well with McGeady looking to get on the ball and generally being pretty dangerous and, following a corner that he won, we really should have gone ahead. McGeady himself took the corner which was flicked on perfectly by Walters but with the goal gaping, Stephen Kelly somehow managed to head the ball into the ground and it bounced up and over the bar. The set piece itself was very similar to that which led to Keane's goal against Latvia and it really should have paid dividends again here. Well worked set pieces have always been a big part of O'Neill's approach and it seems clear that a degree of work had been done on this aspect of the game this last 10 days. But, having started quite well, as has been often the recent case, the longer the half went on the more ragged Ireland seemed to become.

John O'Shea takes the wrong meaning from the talk about O'Neill's All Ireland team......

This wasn't help by an enforced change when Sean St Ledger, who'd been solid in what was a rare outing this season, picked up a groin injury and was replaced by an out of sorts John O'Shea. Indeed, O'Shea was lucky to last more than 3 minutes when he blatantly handled a ball that Lewandowski was running onto after flicking it over his head. It was around this time that Ireland started to look a little ragged and Poland began exerting more control for the close to 10 minutes or so left of the half.  One thing I did notice was that, while James McCarthy has had better games recently, there was a bite to his play that has been missing in the past and he was prepared to demand the ball a bit more and was more robust in his tackling.  This may have been down to him getting more experience and responsibility at a team at the right end of the Premier League or maybe some training ground influence from Roy Keane or even a combination of both but it was encouraging to see.  The potential is certainly there for him to be a very important player for us if he can start combining that facet of play with the obvious ability that he has.

 Not a red???

Come the start of the second half, the pattern of the game remained pretty similar with Poland having more of the ball than at the same stage in the first half but not really giving David Forde in the Irish goal anything much to do. Mention should be made of the much maligned Paul Green who was very solid in the defensive midfield role making a number of blocks and interceptions which helped keep Forde relatively untroubled and he was certainly a candidate for man of the match. The usual raft of second half substitutions duly arrived with my man of the match, McGeady being replaced by McClean being the first of these, but the next thing of note that happened should really have resulted in a red card after an absolutely horrific challenge on Walters by Michal Pazden luckily not resulting in serious injury. It's possible that the ref was lenient due to not sending off O'Shea for his handball in the first half but tackles like that really shouldn't be tolerated, friendly or not. McClean put a decent ball into the box on the resumption of play but no one could take advantage and the longer the game went on, the more difficult Ireland found it to keep possession for any meaningful period. The very poor and heavy conditions of the pitch certainly didn't help and it's not surprising that players may revert to old habits early on in a new managers reign. That said, the little bit of possession we did have should have resulted in the creation of a breakaway chance when Hoolohan played a quick free kick over the Polish defence to where McClean was free in acres of space, but inexcusably he had moved into an offside position when having held his run across the line would have resulted in a clear run through on goal. McClean had a decent time of it the last couple of games but really needs to work on his positioning when it comes to staying onside before we start playing competitive games again. The final whistle sounded not long after finishing a nil-all draw that was pretty similar to the last 2 Eastern European friendlies played under Trap against Hungary and Serbia.

So, overall it's a case of slight changes so far rather than a great leap forward. The new found enthusiasm the new management team have brought is to be welcomed and, if the extra people that came out on Friday can stick around and support the team then that's a positive too. That said, if performances were to continue in the vein of last night's second half then it's arguable that the crowds will fall off again. But it's far too early to be passing any sort of judgement after 2 meaningless games, Steve Staunton's first game in charge brought about a 3-0 victory against a Sweden side that were far more credible opposition than Latvia and we all know how that turned out! That said, Martin O'Neill is clearly a far cannier operator than Stan ever was and has a wealth of experience behind him. Communication under the previous manager was always an issue but O'Neill's handling of the media has been excellent since taking over and to his credit, Roy Keane has been making the right noises in his media work about wanting to learn and knowing where his position in the pecking order is. I was concerned that the over-emphasis on the Keane element of the appointment in the media and by supporters could prove to be unhealthy as it's imperative in any set up that players are very clear on who is running things. Given the force of Keane's personality, there are plenty of managers with whom this could become an issue but I think O'Neill is a strong enough personality himself to prevent this and looking at how both men have worked together this last week and a half, my belief in this has been strengthened.  And while the results so far can be compared like for like with Trap's results against similarly ranked teams (indeed we beat Poland 2-0 as recently as February), there's no doubt that things had gone stale by the time he left and the positivity around the team since the new appointment has been very refreshing.

So there's now a break until March before the next friendly in Dublin v Serbia. Before then we have the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifiers next February and it is this draw that could really dictate the future of this era for Irish football. Greece's play off win against Romania should now guarantee Ireland a second seeding for the qualifiers, barring any last minute moving of the goalposts from UEFA. Even with a tough first seed in the draw, if it's confirmed that, as rumoured, the top 2 will qualify automatically and some of the 3rd place teams will go into play offs there will never have been a qualifying group with more potential for teams to go through. An attractive draw should give the management, players and fans a lift before the friendlies kick off again in March and another 6 months after that for the manager to get his ideas across will give us the opportunity to generate some momentum going into the qualifiers in September next year. Here's hoping.....

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Keane Edge

News of the seemingly imminent appointment of Martin O'Neill as Ireland manager would have been massive in itself over the weekend but it was the linking of Roy Keane to the management ticket that electrified every element of media from social to print with radio and television in between from when the story began to break on Friday night.  From initial scepticism and disbelief, it wasn't long before a mini Saipan seemed to break out on social media as years old entrenched positions were re-dug and debate and argument broke out across the Irish fans forums and likes of The, where a poll on whether Keane's involvement was a good idea quickly gathered over 10,000 votes with nearly 50% of the opinion that it will end in tears, while a similar poll on the You Boys in Green website had over 60% in favour.  While anyone who knows me would be able to tell you what side of the fence I was on post Saipan, I don't necessarily see this appointment in a negative light.  However, there are a number of legitimate concerns that should be addressed in relation to both O'Neill and Keane along with a number of grounds for optimism.

On a previous blog, after Trapattoni had left the post, I'd looked at some of the candidates that would be in the running, including O'Neill.  At that time, I expressed concern that if John Robertson, O'Neill's right hand man throughout his managerial career up until he got the Sunderland job, wasn't included in the set up that there would be the lack of a hands on coach as it's been well reported that O'Neill hasn't been a training ground manager through his career, generally only showing up at the end of the week to look over things and concentrate on the man management aspect of the role.  The inclusion of Keane in the set up does nothing to allay this concern as, he again has a reputation for not really getting involved on the training ground and left that aspect of things to his previous assistant, Tony Loughlan.  So, who does that leave to take the players and work with them tactically in the run up to internationals.  Steve Walford has also been involved with O'Neill for his entire managerial career but has been recently called the Gene Hunt of football coaching by Colin Young, the Mail's North East correspondent who covered both O'Neill's and Keane's managerial stints in Sunderland.  And he was referring to his old school coaching style rather than complimenting his taste is Crombie overcoats!  I have my doubts about Walford and don't think he made the requisite step up from his previous number 3 role when Robertson decided against moving his family up to Sunderland and the managerial set up suffered there as a result with the end of O'Neill's reign at Sunderland joining his short lived reign at Norwich as a blot on what's generally a very good record elsewhere.  Steve Guppy is also said to be involved  whose work with James McClean at Sunderland seemed to halt his progress rather then develop it despite the fact that the wing was where Guppy played at Leicester and Celtic, so there are question marks around him too.  This shouldn't be as big a deal in international football as it is in club football given the much smaller amount of time to work with players involved but I still think it would benefit from having someone with a recognised tactical mind who has experience of taking regular training sessions with players.  Had Robertson been involved at the expense of Guppy I'd have been happier with the set up than with what seems to be proposed.

There are also potential issues with O'Neill's favoured style of play which is a quite rigid 4-4-2 in the main and it was Trapattoni's strict reliance on that formation which led to a huge amount of criticism in the latter part of his reign.  However, I do think that O'Neill's variation of the formation allows for a higher tempo game and is generally played further up the pitch with more pressure put on the opposition when they have the ball in their own half unlike Trap who was happier to stand off the opposition until they got closer to goal.  His style of play did come in for some criticism at Aston Villa but they've struggled to finish near where he had them since he left and Sunderland certainly haven't improved since he left and are now on their third manager in 7 months.  And let's be honest, the bulk of Irish supporters were more than happy with Jack Charlton's style of play as long as it was getting results.  Both O'Neill and Keane have come in for criticism regarding the money they spent and the players they spent it on from some fans of the clubs they've managed in recent years but that obviously is irrelevant in international football so those criticisms can be discounted.   

With Keane, there are also issues that need to be explored.  His dealings with players and man management skills reportedly leave a lot to be desired.  From talking to players who've played under him, his modus operandi was to rule by fear and intimidation which may have worked 20 or 30 years ago but doesn't seem to gain much traction with players in this day and age.  Players have spoken about being afraid to make a mistake and this stifling their natural game.  Add in reports of dressing room tantrums and persistent fall outs with players and there is clearly the potential for things to implode. There's an unusual dynamic to the partnership as well in that, in a usual good cop, bad cop managerial scenario, it's generally the number 2 who acts the good cop and puts the arm around the shoulder of the player after the manager has let loose.  In this situation, while O'Neill who has characteristically been the type of manager who can do both (witness the famous picture of himself and Neil Lennon in Ibrox in 2004), there wouldn't seem to be the buffer that's needed when he has a go at somebody if they don't feel they can turn to the number 2.  In fact, we could be looking at a role reversal of the norm with the manager being the good cop and the assistant the bad cop.  There's also the fact that, through no fault of his own, the level of media attention given to Keane in this country is phenomenal and there's a risk that a disproportionate level of attention will be given to him which could overshadow and potentially undermine the manager.

On the positive side, in accepting an assistant's role the is possibly an indication that Keane realises some of the mistakes he's made in the past and may see this as an opportunity to go through a belated apprenticeship with a manager who's far more experienced than he.  I was shocked when I first heard of this possibility as I didn't think working as an assistant would be in Keane's make up.  I think he may realise that his managerial reputation was very low in England after his Ipswich reign and the attack on his ability by Alex Ferguson the other week would have done further damage to his hopes of getting another managerial job over there.  This may represent an ideal opportunity to begin rebuilding his managerial career alongside someone he respects and in an environment where half the support will forgive him anything and blame him for nothing.  Even allowing for that, it shows a heretofore unseen degree of humility to consider working as a number 2 and it has been reported by the BBC journalist, Pat Murphy, that Keane has begun to reassess the methods that alienated many of his players at Sunderland and Ipswich which, if true, indicates a realisation that change was necessary to have any chance of getting back onto the managerial merry go round.  

It must be remembered amongst all the hyperbole that Martin O'Neill is the manager.  As such, it's 100% right and proper that he gets to choose his background team.  So if he wants Roy Keane as part of that team and Keane wants to be part of it then it was essential that the FAI facilitated this.  I have heard some reports which suggest that Keane was suggested to O'Neill but I find it hard to believe that someone as single minded as O'Neill would allow that to happen.  I'm sure we'll find out more after the appointment is rubber stamped but if it was O'Neill's choice it's a great opportunity for Keane to learn if he's prepared to do so.  From the FAI's perspective, the fact that Keane is undoubtedly box office is a bonus for them despite his fractious relationship with John Delaney.  They can certainly expect a bump in attendances in the short term at least with an influx of many who have preferred to watch their football from the barstool rather than the stadium in recent times.  I'm happy to see anything that may help turn Lansdowne into a fortress again and if this is what it takes to get fans out of the pub and into the ground then so be it.  It's a boon for the media as well and there's no doubt that the press conferences should be fascinating.   

There's been a lot of the usual nonsense from both sides of the Saipan divide on the phone ins with the usual few proclaiming the second (or is it the third?) coming and others saying they won't "set foot in Lansdowne as long as that traitor is involved".  From my perspective, I didn't stop following my country when he returned under Kerr and won't be stopping when he's involved now.  Much as I have my concerns as detailed above, nothing would make me happier than to see this appointment working, the success of the team is the most important thing rather than any individuals.  And, despite those concerns, there is a large part of me that hopes and believes that it can work.  Either way, I think it's safe to say that it won't be boring!