The Off The Ball presenter looks ahead to Ireland's clash with Belgium this Saturday
Versailles is no Sopot. It feels important to make that point and it’s the main reason the 2016 European Championship experience has been a vastly different experience to 2012.
It’s a more sanitised experience for the media. Access to Camp Ireland is low, exposure to training is a 15 minute slot of watching 23 players (22 right now with Jon Walters sitting it out) stretch and lunge and laugh and generally reveal nothing to the watching press pack, a point that also stands for the post training press conferences.
Versailles is a leafy suburb, like gold leafy. The sort of place you could pay €48 for a small bag of fruit at the market square. Good fruit, not great fruit. There was a pivotal moment when I could have questioned the merits of the transaction but I bottled it. Didn’t back my pidgin French to get the job done so I forked out to the smiling saleswoman and went about my day.
It’s starting to feel a little make or break for Ireland now too. The Ireland management and players speak in broad positives about the performance against Sweden; "Excellent" said Roy Keane at yesterday’s press conference; "but it’s gone now". And that sort of sums it up.
Belgium are a team of individuals and Ireland have great spirit (but not as much pride as Wales obviously), that’s the general story line for this game and it discounts that excellent performance against Sweden, a performance we’re really not used to seeing from an Irish team and that we’re not sure when we’ll see again. That’s the nub of it, O’Neill frequently talks about systems and tactics being over-rated. It’s all about the players. Even though he may tweak his shape against Belgium, his biggest job now is to harness the momentum of last Monday night and bring that to Bordeaux and again to Lille.
Marc Wilmots has come under pressure for failing to get the most out of Belgium's 'Golden Generation'. Image: Nick Potts / EMPICS Sport
Players who’ve played under him have queued up in recent weeks to tell Off the Ball about his man-management qualities, "he can make you feel 10 feet tall" said Neil Lennon at Vicar Street this month. It’s been said before and a quality such as that at a tournament such as this, where small margins win games (12 of the 18 games so far have been decided by a margin of no more than one goal), O’Neill has good currency.
The nagging doubt about Belgium’s potential remains, and the documented deficiencies of their coach Marc Wilmots gives his world class players, and Marouane Fellaini, an easy ‘out’ if things turn sour. They can eventually disperse back to London and to Manchester and to Barcelona and to Liverpool with a collective 'nothing to do with me' shrug.
Managing the world number two team is a big ask for a man whose previous experience was an interim stint with Schalke and an inglorious seven months with Sint-Truidense. As a player in the Bundesliga he was nicknamed ‘Kampfschwein’ (‘War Pig’; “...the fans meant it positively” he says) and he will need some of that thick skin over the next week as the bullets land from inside and outside his squad.
“We need to have that same (War Pig) team spirit and willingness to push past the pain barrier" he told FIFA.com last December, "As long as my players do that then I’m satisfied. I have no problem as long as they give their all".
Right now, Wilmots has a problem. And that may be Ireland’s solution.