Suddenly, against every expectation, the Republic of Ireland find themselves with a chance to avenge the moment when that hand of Henry’s denied them a place at the 2010 World Cup. Martin O’Neill was not setting out to make a diplomatic incident of it on Thursday but said enough to reveal that he quietly appreciates its value as a weapon. The manager is not one to pass up an opportunity like that.
Henry had been reluctant to talk about that goal in the 18 hours since Ireland’s 1-0 win over Italy had sent them into a last 16 match against the French in Lyons, O’Neill was told.
“What a surprise,” he said.
The French feel a guilt about it, it was put to him. ”Why shouldn’t they? It was a serious breach of dishonour,” he said. “Don’t put that down…”
Some feel there was a badge of honour to have saved France, however disreputably, it was then suggested. “Oh well done, brilliant, so I bolloxed it up. Put that back in again. So it was honourable, Thierry Henry lives forever…”
The tone hovered between humour and sarcasm because O’Neill knows all too well the psychological advantage presented by the national complex which seems to be surfacing again here about the events of 2009 in Stade de France. “Les Irlandais dissent avoir oublie la man de Thierry Henry – mais ils n’en pensent pas un mot.” (The Irish say they’ve forgotten the hand of Thierry Henry – but they’ve not forgotten a word)” one national title declared on Thursday.
O’Neill finally made it to his bed at 5.30am on Thursday morning, was up again at 9am and though Shane Long’s singing was still on his mind from the coach trip back to their Versailles base – “he is a dreadful singer” – thoughts were turning to where competitive advantage could be pursued against Didier Deschamps’ more technically-gifted players.
Working with the underdog mentality is a fundamental part of the strategy. The former Ireland assistant manager Marco Tardelli has done O’Neill more favours than he knows by declaring in the Italia media in recent days that this Irish side lacks intelligence. “I’m not wildly sure what Marco was saying talking about players who don’t play with their heads,” he said, returning to the theme again and enjoying the last laugh.
This is all part and parcel of a method. Working to the last is the core philosophy and O’Neill has this capacity to make players ready to run to the end of the earth for him. The football is not always pretty and certainly not the most technically proficient, but the psychological strength is there. It is why last-minute goals like Wednesday night’s come so often for the team.
“You have to try and get into their heads and feel they actually belong there for at least that game,” O’Neill said. “The players have got to believe. And I think if a player comes from a Championship side then the biggest thing is you have to make players believe they can belong on the big stage.”
He also took some big decisions before the match against Italy, not least dropping his captain John O’Shea and installing Everton’s Seamus Coleman – not one of football’s monumental personalities – as captain. The sight of O’Neill walking the pitch deep in conversation with Coleman the day before the game seem significant in retrospect. “Whatever I said to him and he said to me, it was ‘We have to be ready for the game, got to be ready for it’. Not only was he ready for it, he galvanised the team as well, which was great because he is, off the field, a really quiet lad, but he has a bit of grit and determination about him which is very evident.”
Coleman is now the man in possession, where the armband is concerned, though less clear is whether Stoke City’s Jon Walters, a huge part of the Republic’s journey under O’Neill, will be fit to play for Lyons on Sunday. The side are a different proposition when he, their stand-out striker, does start. “[I would] absolutely, absolutely [love him to play],” O’Neill said. “Because if anybody deserves it he does, really.”
O’Neill spoke just as passionately about the role of Roy Keane. The affection of their embrace in the aftermath of victory in Lille was surprising to behold, in Keane at least. “He doesn’t always have to be balling around and thinking he has to live up to an image,” O’Neill said. “There’s loads of times when it’s quite the opposite and he’s rather self-effacing.”
Keane will sit down to talk about Sunday’s game ahead of the weekend and the French nation will certainly be listening. A good man to have in your corner.
Be sure of one thing: the Irish won’t be going quietly.
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