EURO 2016

Paris the perfect location for Martin O'Neill to create his masterpiece

EURO 2016By Roy Curtis
O'Neill and the Ireland players in training on Saturday
O'Neill and the Ireland players in training on Saturday

MARTIN O'Neill arrives in Paris the custodian of a personality as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa's smile.

His task at this defining hour is to summon even a fraction of the vision, the daring brush­strokes and bold renaissance spirit that defined her creator.

To deliver something similarly eternal, worthy – to a discerning, if biased Irish eye – of joining Da Vinci's old lady in her tempera­ture-controlled, bullet-proofed Louvre manor.

If O'Neill can swell the gallery of Irish football masterpieces, curate new legends, shade Stuttgart, Genoa or the Giants Stadium with a modern­ist twist, his legacy would be secure.

Maybe, with his ramshackle bunch, ranked a distant 23rd in Europe, he cannot crack the Da Vinci code.

Even that is forgivable, so long as he does not shackle Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady or Shane Long with his predecessor's bleak, joyless paint-by-numbers philosophy.

At the very least the 64-year-old must facilitate the nation in turning forever to the wall those distressing, nihilist mental images framed by that grim summer of Trapattoni.

As a weathervane to O'Neill’s inten­tions, Hoolahan's deployment is all.

Rather than fretting about the Dub­liner's age (seven months younger than Zlatan, incidentally), embrace the vim of his imagination, hand him Stade De France as a blank canvass.

Better that Ireland's creative well­spring runs out of fuel than remains parked in the garage of the manager's anxiety, a concealed Rolls Royce.

O'Neill's approach, the square footage of his ambition, will largely govern the mood music.

The Irish who poured in their thousands down the City of Light's great boulevards yesterday crave a sunburst of optimism, a coach to respond to a national yearning for the pursuit of something unforgettable.

A manager unafraid to tap into the sense of carnival, the camper-van chic, the delirium eager to erupt.

And bold enough to strain for glory, dauntless in embracing tournament football’s lovely lightness of being, insatiable in the thirst to recreate the mad Mardi Gras vibe of '88 and '90.

It is all well and good that Ireland have climbed from 67 to 33 in the world rankings on O'Neill's watch.

But, really, those are who-cares numbers, inanimate, cold.

Euro 2016 will be a success only if Ireland mine some visceral, invigor­ating nugget: A Ray Houghton goal, a Packie Bonner save, a Paul McGrath masterclass.

An imperishable wonder to set alongside other timeless gemstones.

And that is why O'Neill must be prepared to twist rather than stick and stuff the consequences.

Or, as his beloved Geordie pre­decessor, in the gruff, flat-cap, brown-ale, coalmine language of his Ashington youth, might have phrased it, let's give it a lash.

Otherwise, what's the point?

The thunderbolt of victory and the euphoric glow that follows is the narcotic those at home and their kin populating the steep Stade De France bleachers crave.

O'Neill will be excused almost an­ything except uniforming his team in the sackcloth of extreme caution.

His share price will soar the moment he sends forth 11 men to confront Swe­den as a fearless joy division.

If just for a moment the hipster devotion to every tactical nuance, the faux high-brow guff about forma­tions is parked and O'Neill permits himself more primal thoughts.

Maybe the grand-masters will frown, but, as Roy Keane argued last week: "It is not chess we are playing."

Trapattoni might still have failed had he followed countryman Christo­pher Columbus and set out on a bold voyage into the unknown, but the people would have cushioned his fall.

Had the Italian journeyed into open waters there might, at least, have been postcards to send home. As it was, Ireland never left the harbour of his conservative mind.

Replicate old Trap's funeral garb and O'Neill might as well toss his un­signed new contract into the stately Seine, plump and cold-tea brown after the recent torrents.

Ireland, (average goals per Europe­an Championship contested, a skin­flint 1.5), craves a moment of ignition.

No Irish forward has scored at a European finals; where better than Paris for O'Neill to imitate Dumas, unsheathe the flashing blade and set free Long's musketeer spirit.

Let the vigilance end on the ap­proach routes where, over the next month, some 90,000 police, soldiers and private security agents will watch over 2.5 million spectators.

Sweden have Ibrahimovic, but are also one of only three teams (with Ice­land and Albania) in France who have a lower world ranking than Ireland.

And so back to the manager's enigmatic personality, his cryptic, contradictory ways.

Shay Given was hardly un­veiling the third secret of Fatima when he deemed his boss "hard to read".

Flicking through the opaque pages of O'Neill's mind can be like trying to comprehend a Nav­ajo-language translation of Ulysses while riding Disney's Tower of Terror hungover.

Like his fellow Derryman and student of law, Joe Brolly, O'Neill's evident erudition is flecked with eccentricity.

His humour is quirky; with that mortifying "queers" line he strayed into a time-warp, alight­ing at a 1970s workman's club with Bernard Manning de­livering crass punchlines.

If that lapse was unfortunate, the upside to his unorthodox ways is the influence of his torchbearer on the road to management, Brian Clough.

That madcap genius was forever will­ing to risk the road less trav­elled, howev­er steep the gradient.

Clough might have taken a punt on Jack Byrne this week as he did a teenage Roy Keane at Liv­erpool all those years ago.

O'Neill is too in­herently cagey to go that far.

But Hoolahan as playmaker, Brady's left-foot liberated to wreak havoc, Seamus Coleman given the commander-in-chief's approval to raid deep into Swedish territory…

These, surely, are minimum re­quirements.

The easy option for Da Vinci would have been to sketch another fruit bowl: By pushing down the barriers, through his fearless striving, he delivered something unforgettable.

O'Neill, if he is to initial his own masterpiece, must unleash a similar fireball of ambition.