Interview: Martin O’Neill on why Leicester and Ireland can achieve the impossible

Interview: Martin O’Neill on why Leicester and Ireland can achieve the impossible

MARTIN O’Neill walks through the lobby of the Pullman Hotel, Paris. The backdrop – a view of the Eiffel Tower – is stunning. Yet the view up ahead is just as eye-catching, this gathering of the 24 coaches who will take their teams to the Euro 2016 finals in France later this year.

To the left is the multi-lingual, Roy Hodgson, chatting away in French to Didier Deschamps. Chris Coleman, dispensing with his jacket and tie, speaks passionately about the journey his team have made. Likewise, Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, is engrossed in conversation with his Icelandic counterpart.

Watching it all unfold are 200 press people, around 40 camera crews and a handful of photographers. A bell rings and slowly everyone moves into a windowless room where the air con hums and the temperature rises.

O’Neill, however, calmly straightens his tie and ignores the stuffiness of the room to get on with the job in hand. Right throughout January and February, that job has entailed studying DVDs of Italy, Sweden and Belgium – Ireland’s opponents in Group E – and having analysed their many strengths, he has managed to identify a few weaknesses and is convinced that he can exploit those and guide Ireland through to the second phase of the tournament.

Right through O’Neill’s career, he has specialised in causing upsets: winning a First Division title and two European Cups as a player with Nottingham Forest, captaining Northern Ireland to victory over Spain in the 1982 World Cup quarter-finals and, as a manager, guiding Leicester City to two League Cup triumphs, Celtic to the UEFA Cup final, Ireland to a victory over World Cup winners Germany, en route to Euro 2016 qualification.

Yet he doesn’t want to stop now. “The important thing is for players to go in with some respect for the opposition but without any fear,” he says. “We simply can’t enter any game thinking, ‘oh gosh, if we defend long enough, we might actually get a draw’.

“If we have that mentality, then someone will actually open you up. We have done it against Germany and I know that was a while ago at this stage, but hopefully that will be in the back of the players’ minds when they go into the games against Sweden, Belgium and Italy. We should take something from the fact we can compete with the best in the world.

Martin O'Neill [Picture: Inpho] Martin O'Neill pictured during Ireland's now famous 1-0 win over Germany [Picture: Inpho]
“We have to be unrelenting in our determination. There are moments in matches when teams take a breather, when the game gets a wee bit slower for a period of time and that is the time we have got to be really strong mentally, because the good teams can slow it down and lull you into a false sense of security.

“So we have to be alert to that and then try and impose ourselves.”

As he speaks, a man taps him on the shoulder. want a word with him, so too Sky Sports. Politely he fulfils his duties, while all around him, the room slowly clears. Before long, he, Coleman and Michael O’Neill are the last remaining managers in the room and while it would be nice to think they will outlast their rivals once the tournament begins in June, the likelier scenario is that they’ll all be among the first to leave.

Or at least logic suggests so, but then again this is the year when football logic has been turned on its head, when Leicester City – who approached O’Neill before they settled on Claudio Ranieri – have steered a path to the top of the Premier League and are on course to deliver the biggest shock in English football since Brian Clough guided Nottingham Forest to the 1977-78 title – the year O’Neill scored 15 goals from midfield.

Since then just eight clubs – Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers – have shared the subsequent 38 championships. Yet each win was bankrolled.

Forest’s wasn’t, though. Struggling in the old Second Division when Clough arrived in January 1975, they scraped into the top flight with the fifth lowest points total of any promoted team in history, before Clough added Peter Shilton, Archie Gemmill, Kenny Burns and David Needham to his unheralded squad.

And the mix of old with new resulted in the club’s golden era – with the league title, two League Cups and two unforgettable European Cups added to the trophy cabinet over the next three seasons. Now it is Leicester who are leading the unexpected charge. “The comparisons are justifiable – even though there is an obvious stretch in years between our era and this one,” O’Neill said.

Leicester's James Vardy (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images) Leicester's James Vardy has defied the odds by becoming the Premier League's top scorer so far this season [Photo: Getty Images]
“But it is like for like. Back then, expectations of us were non-existent and I remember thinking after 20 minutes of our opening game of that season against Everton at Goodison Park that – ‘this league is too much for us to cope with’.

“But we withstood the pressure, scored from a corner and never looked back. In fact, we took the league by storm. We went on a great run, lost only three times in the league that season and all the way, people were expecting us to blow up – just as they have predicted Leicester would fade away.

“The truth is we never believed in ourselves until we got to Christmas and beat Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford. That was the day we thought we can do this. And I can see parallels with Leicester now. After all they went to Manchester – to City in their case – and won away.

“Those wins fill you with confidence. And when we beat United – John O’Hare, who had been at Derby when they won the league in 1972, said to all of us ‘you will win it’. But no one believed him. Press people thought we would fade away.

“We didn’t, though. Nor do I expect Leicester to disappear this time, either. They are just like us. Had you had said to me before this season started that Leicester would get into Europe, I would have said it would probably be beyond them.

“Now had you went one step further and said they are definitely going to be in the Champions League, I’d have suggested that you had gone a wee bit crazy.

“So can they win the league now? Absolutely and there is one reason I think so. They have no other competitions to play in. But the other clubs are battling on a couple of fronts and it really makes me think Leicester can go all the way.”

Can Ireland have a similar run this summer? He smiles, too sharp to allow himself get tripped up. Yet he knows shocks can happen. “If you studied team sheets and said to yourself, ‘well they are better than us, we won’t bother turning up’, then you’d go nowhere. But I have always felt that if you can impart belief into players that things can happen. That’s worked for me in the past.”

And, he hopes, in the immediate future.