The wait is over. Today, Martin O’Neill breezed through his first press conference as the Republic of Ireland manager. Sounding relaxed, content, and determined, this was a world away from the incoherent ramblings that the Irish media and fans had become accustomed to throughout the tenure of his predecessor.
It was a breath of fresh air and exactly what the Irish football community needed. Make no mistake, Irish football was in the doldrums towards the end of Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign; years of being subjected to an archaic brand of football guided by antiquated tactics, a hardnosed reluctance to integrate new players when they were clearly ready, and the unshakeable feeling that Trapattoni simply didn’t believe in the players at his disposal had taken their toll. Yes, Ireland qualified for the Euro’s. But the manner of the results there, coupled with the style of football played in the preceding years and the month's following the Championships, saw many turn their backs on the national team. Or if not turn their backs entirely, at the very least the majority had their interest in the team neutered.
Now, the buzz has returned. Martin O’Neill’s appointment in itself would have been enough to generate an excitement around the team again. His biggest strength is that he is a great motivator of players and has consistently extracted absolutely everything from the talents he has worked with (Sunderland aside). In terms of an Irish team not exactly blessed with stars, it could be the perfect match. There are niggling doubts of course. While motivation is a strength, his time at Sunderland and even Aston Villa would seem to suggest that while this trait generates a great short term gain, the impact can wear off in the long term. In the international arena one would hope this would be mitigated against due to the fact that matches are so few and far between.
And of course, O’Neill isn’t coming alone. Roy Keane will once again polarise opinions up and down the country. It’s a big step for him, and indeed could be viewed as one of humility. It’s encouraging to know how excited he is at the prospect of returning to the fold as assistant, with O’Neill joking that it took him all of four and a half seconds to say yes. But if there are niggling doubts about O’Neill, there are many more when it comes to Keane. His acidic tongue, a propensity to fall out with players, and an unwillingness to subordinate being but three. One would hope that he has learnt from his previous roles as manager. To say his management future looked bleak a week ago, both due to his own failings in the job and the withering he received from Alex Ferguson in his new book, would be a fair summation. This may very well be his last chance, he needs to succeed. While playing second fiddle isn’t a position that he is familiar with (and indeed this week he did steal most of the headlines, despite being the sidekick in this managerial duo), perhaps it’s exactly what he needs right now.
O’Neill spoke eloquently at his unveiling. He was relaxed, with numerous jokes scattered in his answers to the litany of questions that came his way. As one would expect, he spoke highly of Keane, praising his engaging demeanour and his thirst for knowledge. He also acknowledged that Keane had a point to prove. However, we didn’t get much of an insight into how the dynamics of their budding partnership would work. What O’Neill did say was that they would attend as many matches as possible in England and Ireland and that he would value Keane’s opinion as his assistant, of which there will be much.
Importantly, O’Neill mentioned that he wanted to develop his own style of play and win games with a bit of panache. That will be music to the ears of the fans.
So O'Neill has fielded his first questions as Ireland boss, but there are many more that can only be answered in the coming months and years. What style will he impose on the team? How will O’Neill and Keane co-exist? Will Keane really be comfortable as an assistant? How will the players react to the new set up given that many have had run-ins with both? And the biggest of all: can they be successful in their remit of qualifying Ireland for the European Championships in 2016. Only time will tell, and the O’Neill-Keane axis could yet end in tears. But for now, a genuine excitement abounds in Irish football again, and for that we should be grateful.