Monday, May 30, 2016

Group E - Italy or Belgium

Group E - Italy (or Belgium?)

Onto Group E. In other years this might be thought of as another possible "group of death" but not according to the bookies who seem pretty certain about the two to qualify from here: Italy and Belgium. The other two teams, Sweden and Republic of Ireland, have respectable records in international tournaments but their form hasn't been great lately and so the bookies make them 100/1 and 150/1, respectively. Belgium are 5th favourites to win the tournament at 12/1 and Italy are next at 17/1. Both seem good odds from here.

The group starts on Monday, 13th June with Sweden v Ireland followed straight away with Italy v Belgium. The later could realistically end up being the final.

More later, no doubt, on Italy and Belgium but here I want to focus on one of the smartest managers in the game, someone I followed when he was a player at Nottingham Forest and then as a young manager at Wycombe Wanderers, the manager of the Republic of Ireland.

Martin O'Neill

I have watched much of Martin O'Neill's football career from the beginning, both as a player an a manager. I didn't see his debut for Forest, in Division One against West Brom on 13th November 1971 (he came on as sub and scored on his debut in their 4-1 win) but I saw his first full appearance at home, and second overall, against Leeds United two weeks later.

Young Martin

I don't know how many of his 300 or so appearances for The Reds I actually saw, but I think it was probably more than half of them. This includes, of course, the one I expect he is most proud of, Forest's retention of the European Cup at the Bernebeu stadium in Madrid in 1980.

Martin O'Neill dazzling Ivan Buljan in the 1980 European Cup final

Martin, like me, missed out on the Munich final the year before and probably, like me, thought that he'd missed the opportunity of a lifetime. Amazingly, Forest went on to win the biggest prize in club football for the second year running, so Martin got his medal after all.

Glory for O'Neill and Forest

His playing career would never reach those heights again, blighted as he was, with injury. But for O'Neill, having experienced the management of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, it was a natural step to have a go at management himself. 
He is a rare bright spark in football  - he was doing a Law degree at Queens university in Belfast before joining Nottingham Forest - and he set about it in a very logical, step-by-step way - starting at lowly clubs Grantham Town and then Shepshed Charterhouse to cut his teeth.

We had already been living in High Wycombe for four years and I had been to Loakes Park (the town center, sloping ground, that preceded Adams Park) to see the Chairboys play a few times, when I heard that the new Wycombe Wanderers manager was my hero from Nottingham.

Of course, that was reason enough for me to become a season ticket holder and for the second time in a few short years, I witnessed the meteoric rise of a team I supported, transformed under brilliant management.

O'Neill at Wycombe Wanderers
His record in management is almost (take away his time at Sunderland) impeccable...

1990-91 FA Trophy Winners at Wembley.

Martin getting his priorities right again

1991-92 GM Vauxhall Conference runners up to Colchester Utd.
1992-93 Won the GM Vauxhall Conference. FA Trophy winners at Wembley again. Wycombe Wanderers won promotion to the league for the first time in their history. 
1993-94 Promotion to the 3rd tier at their first attempt, beating Preston in the play off final at Wembley.
1994-94 Promotion with Leicester to the Premier League - again via the playoffs at Wembley.
1996-97 League Cup Winners - at Wembley again.
1998-99 League Cup Runners Up
1999-2000 League Cup Winners

- at Wembley again

O'Neill brought success to Leicester - before most outside the East Midlands had heard of them

Martin constantly had Leicester City between 8th and 10th in the Premier League in his time there.
At Celtic, from 2000-2005 he won the league 3 times, the Scottish FA Cup three times and the League Cup once. Under O'Neill, Celtic won 213, drew 29 and lost 40, of 282 games played. This is the best record of any Celtic manager ever at a time when their close rivals Rangers were as competitive as ever.

Celtic Success

From 2006 under Martin O'Neill Aston Villa finished 6th in the Premier League 3 years running. How their fans would long for those days now!

After falling out with Villa owner Randy Lerner, he left and moved to his beloved Sunderland in 2011. His first season was Ok, as Sunderland finished 13th but it went pear-shaped the next season and he was sacked in March 2013.

After 6-7 months away from the spotlight, Martin was appointed manager of the Irish national team following on from Giovanni Trapattoni's failure to take Ireland to the World Cup finals in Brazil. 

O'Neill, always the most elloquent football pundit... in Brazil

Needless to say, so far, so good. In one of the toughest groups, even with the extra places at these expanded finals, Ireland managed to qualify, including one of their biggest wins in their history, a 1-0 defeat of World champions, Germany.

Animated as ever against Germany!

As sometimes has been the case, O'Neill didn't do it the easy way and Ireland had to beat Bosnia Herzegovina in the play offs to reach France. But it's this kind of steely competitive edge that is characteristic of all O'Neill's teams. I will be keeping my fingers crossed that they show the same grit and determination and get through to the knock out rounds but my brain is telling me it has to be Italy and Belgium 1st and 2nd.

The winners of Group E play the runners up in Group D, and the runners up play the winners of Group F. So it could be Italy v Croatia and Belgium v Portugal. Ireland, if they finish 3rd with a decent points tally, could end up playing Spain or France in the round of 16. Now that would be a truly amazing way to cap a great managerial career if Ireland managed to get to a quarter final place from there!

Monday, 30th May 2016.

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