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Martin O’Neill must win the media battle and then the war

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AS honeymoon destinations go, Poznan is not where you expect most Irish couples to shack up.

Yet given how this Martin O’Neill-Roy Keane partnership has an air of surrealism to it, Poznan was as good a place as any for the Odd Couple to spend a couple of days whispering sweet nothings into one another’s ear.

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Since getting their new jobs  three weeks ago both men have been on the charm offensive and, in response, they have been favourably written about, even though both men know — more than anyone — how results dictate what people write.

Still, given his education in the world of law, O’Neill knows the power of persuasion.

Perhaps this was why, on the day he was unveiled to the press in Dublin he spent two hours speaking to various media outlets before he casually invited a posse of 10 or so journalists to join him for a cup of tea. Under Giovanni Trapattoni, a safe distance was kept. Getting up close and cosy was never the Italian’s cup of tea.

Did it cost Trap his job?

No, a succession of defeats did — but if there is one thing that has been noticeable over the last decade, it is how the Irish press-pack can influence public opinion.

Certainly Mick McCarthy could have done with some more allies post Saipan. Similarly, Brian Kerr was handicapped by the mood of the headline writers and poor old Steve Staunton was vilified almost from the start.

Trapattoni, though, knew this was a game he had to play and he did so admirably — regularly turning to his interpreter for long-winded translations of what he quickly copped were difficult questions so he could buy himself time to think.

And in his first two campaigns, his aura — and to a large extent, his age — resulted in journalists all too easily forgiving him for answering a completely different question to the one he was asked.

By the time Germany were putting six goals past us in a World Cup qualifier, though, patience had worn thin. Teeth were bared and whenever he bit back, he often showed his age.

As it happens, he shares the same birthday as my father and there were times when I spoke to dad about whether I was a cheeky pup asking someone with so much more life experience whether he was making the wrong call.

“If it makes you feel less guilty, you’ve never been shy reminding me about how awful my cooking is,” he replied. “And I’m not on €2 million a year to boil your spuds.”

So Trap, from time to time, got it in the neck. And the Catholic guilt — part of our DNA — subsided.

O’Neill knows the deal. Unlike Trapattoni, he doesn’t have an interpreter by his side to help dig him out of a hole and no longer can the FAI claim intended points were ‘lost in translation’.

“I’ve been doing this job for a quarter-of-a-century,” said O’Neill.

“At the start there were two men and a dog asking me questions. By the time I was at Sunderland, dawn had nearly broke by the time my press conferences ended. It’s part of my responsibilities. I know that and I can handle that.”

He certainly can. Over tea, he listened along as one of the few self-effacing journalists among us told a story about how he had once made a fool of himself in a press conference with an awkwardly phrased question.

The manager in question had poked a little fun and our friend was left feeling a little sheepish by the incident. “But look, you guys always get the last word and the last laugh if results go against us,” said O’Neill.

So he has this gig sussed. He knows that if he wins big games that he will be crowned a hero and if he loses that the managerial guillotine awaits. And knowing is half the battle. Once you possess the self-confidence to treat sycophants and interrogators just the same then the job becomes a whole lot easier.

Ask Jack Charlton. The greybeards among us frequently recount stories about Big Jack’s era even though their audience shows as much patience to them as Del and Rodney did in Only Fools and Horses whenever Uncle Albert uttered the words, ‘During the War’.

As anecdote follows anecdote, one thing becomes clear – Charlton had his audience in the palm of his hand. He may never have seduced the purists with the football his side played but the critics were on side.

Managing Ireland is a rough enough ride for any man, no matter how intelligent they are. And while O’Neill has used his first couple of games to experiment with formations, the smartest tactic he could come up with now is to ensure the tea and the words keep flowing.

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