Ireland need to focus on the positives
Mick explains why, if Martin O'Neill's men believe in themselves, there is no-one they should fear at Euro 2016
Brian Clough said the England physios should be given a few extra Deutschmarks to help get me fit ahead of the Euro 88 game with England. How did that game work out? The more negative punditry I got, the more motivation I had to ram it down people’s throats and it’s part of Ireland’s DNA. Ireland’s best performances have always been when we were the underdog and nobody expected us to do anything.
There’s concern about a perceived lack of quality in the Ireland squad heading into the Euros. We’re likely to have about 11 or 12 players in the squad who play in the top flight of an elite league. When we were heading into World Cup 2002, it was closer to 20. But it’s no cause for concern.
This is all punditry and paper talk to fill pages. It only puts negative thoughts in players’ heads.
I bet the lads in the squad have never looked around and thought ‘Oh, blooming hell – there’s only 12 of us who play in the Premier League.’
It’s no concern to me at all. Leicester hadn’t got many Champions League players when they won the league this year, did that matter?
Ireland have qualified and they looked pretty comfortable against Bosnia in the play-offs. Yes, it was a bit of a toil for much of the qualification campaign, but don’t look for the negatives. We’ve actually qualified and this is the team we’ve got. You put together the best possible unit you can with the players you’ve got and it doesn’t matter where they’re playing. It’s about what they do for you. The players did it for me on a consistent basis so I never worried about where they came from or how well their club teams were doing.
Getting a strong common bond is key to getting a team performing above what they’re capable of. We went on a tour of the US in 2000 prior to the start of the World Cup qualification campaign. It may have looked like an end of season booze-up but that was brilliant in terms of bonding and bringing the squad together. We drew with the US, Mexico and beat South Africa, so the performances weren’t bad either. Everybody enjoyed it and I remember the lads saying ‘this is like a club’ and that helped us without a doubt. When we started the qualifying campaign for World Cup 2002, there was a camaraderie and team spirit that really helped. And it showed because we started with draws away to the Netherlands and Portugal.
Smells Like Team Spirit
There’s nothing in particular I did to make it happen. It’s about treating the players with respect, looking for the positives in people and trust the players to their jobs. I did it with Millwall, Ireland, Sunderland, Wolves and, hopefully, I’m doing it at Ipswich who were bottom of the league when I took the job. You try to create an environment where people want to come and do their job. You’ve got to have that in any team, especially heading into a major tournament. Trust is vital, on and off the pitch.
When I was playing under Jack Charlton, Jack and Maurice Setters used to take the first rooms on the corridor where the team was staying. I asked Jack a few years ago did he used to hear the lads coming back after a few pints. He said ‘yeah.’ I said ‘did you ever think of sticking your head out the door and checking on the lads?’.
He told me ‘no, if I had of done, I would’ve had to deal with it.’
Everybody knew we used to go for a pint on a Sunday night – we weren’t invisible – but we were winning games and there was a great team spirit, so it wasn’t a big deal. It really felt like a club side. Players wanted to turn up whether they were going to get a game or not.
From the outside looking in, it looks like Martin O’Neill has built that and once results start going your way, you start to build momentum. Players really start looking forward to meeting up during the international breaks. Rewind about 12 months ago to the draw at home to Scotland. Things looked hopeless then and Martin was under real pressure. You’ve got to have a starting point and that came with beating Gibraltar comfortably. A few days later we beat Georgia at home, Scotland lost at home to Germany and all of a sudden we had some renewed hope of getting that play-off spot. That built up to the performance against Germany who we famously beat at home, and suddenly we’re heading into the play-off with our heads high.
The Winds of Change
Things can change very quickly in football. People shouldn’t get too carried away by a victory and they shouldn’t get too down on a manager after a defeat. Martin is a hero now when only a few months ago certain people wanted him gone.
In July 2002, I was greeted with a hero’s welcome after the World Cup and a few months later, I’m out of a job.
Feelings can flip-flop and as a manager, it’s not ideal, but it happens. Managers need to stay focused and concentrate on getting results. When everyone is going mad around him and calling for change, he obviously kept his calm, picked his team, worked on his tactics and ultimately, got us to the Euros.
The environment for the build-up to tournaments has changed a lot over the years. In Euro 88, no-one gave us a chance, no-one thought we should be there and we were left to get on with it. That wasn’t how the team felt because we had unbelievable self-belief. Our performances and results had been getting better and better. We knew we were a team that no-one liked to play against and that tournament backed it up.
In Italia 90, there was a noticeably bigger media spotlight. We came under scrutiny for everything we did and why we did it plus the results in 88 meant the expectations were higher. You could sense that because there was a lot more pressure to achieve something in 1990. 2002 felt more like a continuation of what I had experienced in 1990. It didn’t change how I did it, but you could feel there was more scrutiny. This time around, it will probably be more intense than ever.
Beating The System
You don’t get away with just team spirit. When you’re playing Spain or Germany, that can get you some of the way, but the technique and speed of their players is so superior, it can’t bridge the gap. You need the manager to bring focus, discipline, hard work, an organised system and you’ve got to be able to play a bit too.
If you find a way of playing that suits everybody collectively and everyone can do their role within it, like we did with Jack’s pressing game, you’re on to something. If you’re playing someone who is better than you, you’ve got to do something to upset their rhythm, momentum, their ability and inflict your game on them. If you do that, you can beat them. If you turn up and think ‘these are better than us’ you’re gonna get beaten.
Ireland can beat anyone at the Euros on their day. They players need to believe that and I’m sure they will after the results against Germany in the last campaign. That’s not somebody saying ‘oh, you can do this’ they’ve actually done it. Nobody fancies us to get out of the group against Sweden, Italy and Belgium. It’s a very tough group, but you’ve got to have a go at it and believe you can do it.
We’ve got to play as well as we possibly can to get through. We’ve done it before. No-one fancied us in 2002 but we went there, focussed on playing as well as we could and we’d see where we ended it. That’s the attitude we should have this time around.