Talking Ireland With Matt Holland

16 years ago, Matt Holland smashed the ball into Cameroon’s net in The Republic of Ireland’s opening game of the 2002 World Cup. Of course, the preparation of the Irish in Saipan was consumed by the Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy debacle. No need to rewrite history and go into detail on that one; we all know the score. In spite of that, Ireland went on to have a positive tournament and brought a feel good factor to the country that had not been felt since Italia ’90; you can always rely on sport to unite a nation. Fully grown men embracing and throwing beer back like it was going out of fashion; what a time to be alive.

Despite the absence of Roy Keane, that Irish team boasted some of the finest footballers that this country has ever produced. In addition, they produced some of the finest sporting moments we have ever witnessed. Who will ever forget Robbie Keane’s equalizer in the 90th minute against the Germans on the 5th of June 2002? Do you remember where you were as he put the ball past Oliver Kahn? I bet you do.

Fast forward to 2018, Irish football is in as bad a state as I can remember. The feel good factor has long gone. There has been no sign of another Robbie Keane or a Damien Duff coming through lately.

With the current state of Irish football being such a hot topic on social media recently, I was eager to speak to a man who has experienced the highs and lows of international football in a green shirt. I got in touch with former Republic of Ireland midfielder Matt Holland to pick his brain on current matters. I was interested to hear his stance on O’Neill; a stance which we both share. Further, I was curious to ask about Roy Keane, a man I have a particular interest in as a Manchester United fan.

After Ireland’s capitulation against Wales in the Nations League, a draw with Poland followed, but that was not enough to keep the wolves from the door. Cries of #ONeillOut have been doing the rounds on Twitter. The WhatsApp circus involving Roy Keane and several senior players has not done much to aid Martin O’Neills cause; trouble just seems to follow Keane doesn’t it? However, Holland insists it is not all doom and gloom:

”The Wales performance was not a good one. Nevertheless, I was much more encouraged by the display in Poland. It was really nice to see some of the younger/fringe players stand up and be counted. I was particularly impressed with Callum O’Dowda and Aiden O’Brien in the Poland game. Also, I thought Shaun Williams was effective over the 2 games. 

I think overall, Martin has done a decent job. In terms of answering your question of whether of not Martin O’Neill is still the man to lead the Irish team, I would reserve my judgement on his future until the end of November and the outcome of the Nations League.”

I am inclined to agree with Holland on that one. O’Neill and Keane have done a good job. They led Ireland to the Euros and have had some fantastic results during their tenure. Beating Germany at The Aviva, beating Italy, and by all accounts, could have beaten France and reached the quarter final of Euro 2016. Having said that, on one hand, maybe O’Neill has taken this team as far as he can. Although, on the other hand, you can’t make chocolate fudge cake if you haven’t got any chocolate. What are the #ONeill out brigade expecting? Open, expansive football? Forget about it; we are where we are, and we are what we are. The players are simply not there at this moment in time and that is the stark reality of the situation.

The recruitment side of things is a shambles. The FAI is crying out for someone who knows this country inside out to bring through players at grassroot level. In comparison to the elite countries, Ireland are a long way behind in that sense.

To echo the comments of Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady on Dunphy’s podcast last week, who better to do that job than Brian Kerr? His knowledge of the game in Ireland is second to none. Of course, Kerr was heavily involved almost 20 years ago, as he coached the likes of Duff and Keane at underage level, and they had great success in the u16 and u18 European Championships. He has not been involved with the FAI since his dismissal from his role as manager in 2005; and it doesn’t look like he will be back in the fold any time soon. Pull the finger out John Delaney.

Holland made over 500 appearances for the likes of Bournemouth, Ipswich Town and Charlton Athletic in a sixteen year career, and captained all three clubs. He captained Ipswich to a 5th place finish in the Premier League in 2001. Moreover, he won 49 caps for The Republic of Ireland, scoring 5 goals, and skippered his nation on three occasions. Having lined out with Roy Keane several times through his career, I did not waste a chance to ask about my favourite ever Manchester United player:

”Roy was incredibly demanding in both training and matches. He has the highest of standards and if he feels as though you are dropping below them, he will be on you. He was always available for the ball; no matter how much pressure he was under. In addition, Roy was one of the best passers of a ball through midfield into a strikers feet that I’ve ever seen.”

He went on to say:

”My toughest opponent in a Manchester United shirt? I would say Roy from a physical point of view because I always felt my engine was one of my strongest points: but he was able to match that! Although, from a technical point of view, I’d say Paul Scholes; he was just an unbelievable player.”

The game has changed from Matt Holland’s time. Of that, there is no doubt. There are a number of increasing challenges in contemporary sport to overcome in order to be a successful athlete. Having spoken to a number of professional athletes from a wide range of sports, it is widely acknowledged now that social media is a massive challenge a modern sportsperson must face:

”The pressure in the modern game is massive. That is probably one of the main challenges facing a modern pro, everything you do; both on and off the pitch, is scrutinised. If I was playing now, I really don’t think that I would be on social media. It’s so easy to listen/read what people are saying/writing. Most of it is is negative, too. That must have an effect on you.

Nowadays, I think everyone is looking for a slight edge in every area; that could be why more and more teams are looking to use psychology. Whilst psychologists were used in my day, it wasn’t overly common, to be honest. I didn’t really use mental techniques when I was preparing for a game. Although, I did try to visualize a previous good performance, in order to then, in turn, try and replicate it.”

When it comes to dealing with that pressure, that is where sports psychology comes in; an area that is of huge interest to me. It strikes me that in the digital age, managers and players alike are willing to explore all avenues in an attempt to get the jump on their opponent. Anything that can give you the edge, can only be a good thing. Even if only a slight edge, a 5% advantage, why would teams not try it? You can have all the technical ability in the world, but if you haven’t got the head to apply it, ultimately, you will come up short. That is what separates the serial winners from the guys who win silverware once and are content with that, or the guys who win nothing at all. Sir Alex Ferguson was a master of psychology. Once a trophy was won, that was it, onto the next one. All the great managers had that tunnel vision when it came to success: Shankly, Ferguson, Busby.

To conclude, I will leave you with a quote from a recent interview I did with Manchester United legend Brian McClair on the magic of Alex Ferguson:

”I remember the very first day of pre-season after the FA Cup win, he came into the dressing room and said ”I’m willing to climb back up to the top of the mountain again. Anybody who wants to come with me is more than welcome. If you don’t, come and tell me.” I was always amazed at how driven he was. It was a case of ”Okay, you’ve done that but let’s get to the next one”. 

A summation of the mentality of the man. Such a method in itself, is psychology. No question. It is perhaps possible that we are too caught up with labelling mental skills and techniques nowadays. Psychology has always been an important part of sport; it is naive to think otherwise. The great men I have mentioned above were masters of it.



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