Doing the research for this interview was not very difficult at all. Growing up in Northern Ireland, my father told me many stories of Martin O'Neill as a player and the impact of the 1982 team in the World Cup. Just as I was starting to follow the game myself, he was then making his mark as a manager and for the last 30 years, he's been somewhat of a household name in British and Irish football. Like many others, Brian Clough's style of management has intrigued me for a number of years, so that's where I wanted to start with this interview. I'll always remember watching one Clough documentary where Martin is asked if treats his players in the same way as Clough treated him. "Sometimes I hope not" was Martin's response. So this was definitely where I wanted to begin. You hear about so many players who did not enjoy the coach that they were playing for, but years later the penny drops. Was Clough this type of manager or did the players appreciate him at the time? Martin gave a fascinating insight into perhaps the genius of Clough. "How could you not enjoy all that success?" he asked me, but then he went onto explain that the impact and belief that Brian Clough instilled was so great that the players almost took their success for granted. Beating that great Liverpool team regularly and competing for European trophies became the norm for a club that was previously nowhere near those levels. There's a great quote from Lao Tzu that I thought of when he explained this: "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves."
For someone who has experienced the game changing in so many ways, I was also keen to ask him if he feels that with science, data, and tactical innovations, we, as coaches, are overcomplicating the game today. This is where the media portrayal of coaches can do them a serious disservice. It's clear that listening to Martin O'Neill, he respects the science and the abundance of scouting information that we have available today, but at the same time wants to emphasize the importance of how we communicate and prioritize it. Below you can see another reference to Brian Clough on the simplicity of the game, but after this comment (in the full interview) he expands on how this level of communication is not just coach to player. In today's professional environments, you have a large amount of support in medical, physical, tactical, and Martin explains how their view or opinion may be inconsistent to that of the coach. It's a great point for coaches to consider: if you bring in new staff and new departments, without effective channels of communication, does the ability of the coach to impact decrease?
As we moved into leadership styles and motivation, we also ventured onto the topic of Roy Keane. It was really interesting to hear Martin describe what he was looking for in Keane joining his staff as an assistant coach, and at the same time understanding that he was going to bring some elements such as wanting to pick the team for the match. I think this is a great lesson for coaches in terms of assessing the skills of your staff and working through aspects where there may be one or two differences. Martin seemed to have given careful consideration over the fact that international football suited Roy Keane's style of leadership where he could come in and make an impact for a short period of time. Impact is something that Martin clearly values in his environment, both from himself and his staff.
Coaching for results versus was another aspect of the interview that I really enjoyed hearing his perspective on. The coaching community as a whole is generally aware that the professional side of the game is about results and winning games. Martin does not dispute that. He does however, give some powerful insight into what that skillset then looks like for a coach. Throughout the interview he details certain personality traits that a coach must possess to get the most out of their players for match day. On the subject of motivation, he also discussed how the players today have changed in terms of how they want to receive information from coaches and how the financial side of the game has possibly shifted the power from the coach to the player in recent years. Below is a clip of Martin comparing the role of a coach at first team to youth team and how they sometimes require a different set of skills.
Overall, the interview with Martin O'Neill was educational on a number of levels. His insight into his experiences was always going to be fascinating. I also think that the fact that he went into so much detail into each question was really appreciated by all who listened. Above all however, the way he conducted himself behind the scenes I think was the most enjoyable aspect for Enda, John and myself. We went through a couple of test runs, fought some technology issues, and Martin was patient throughout the processes, as well as immediately following up with us all individually as soon as the call was over. Humility is a great quality of a coach, and despite a very successful career at the highest level, Martin certainly showed that he still has it in abundance.
You can watch the full interview below: