The only surprise for Martin O’Neill was that the press conference was nearing the end by the time someone asked about the Republic of Ireland’s assistant manager.
“I was wondering how long it would take before we got a question on Mr Keane,” O’Neill said. “He’s fine, we locked him up about 25 minutes ago and I don’t think we’re going to allow him to come here. He’s caged in at this minute as his beard gets longer and uglier. But he’s good. He’s the werewolf of Manchester.”
O’Neill was on good form, looking relaxed and cracking jokes, including one moment of comedy gold when the manager and John O’Shea, who was alongside him, were asked how many Belgium players would get into the Republic of Ireland team. There was a pause that seemed to go on for ever as one waited for the other to answer before O’Neill, passing the buck, turned to his right and said: “John?”
What a contrast with two hours earlier, when Marc Wilmots, sitting in the same seat as O’Neill, looked and sounded like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Belgium, second in Fifa’s rankings and among the Euro 2016 favourites, were beaten 2-0 by Italy in Lyon on Monday night and the spotlight has shone an unfavourable light on Wilmots ever since, in particular the idea that the 47-year-old lacks the tactical acumen to get the best out of one of the most talented squads in this tournament.
Wilmots pointed to his record of five defeats in 47 matches but it already feels as if there is a sizeable case file being put together against him. Whether the rumours circulating around the squad are right or not, there comes a moment when the background noise becomes too loud to ignore. Only victories will put to bed the sort of allegations that were thrown his way on the eve of the Ireland game.
The Belgium coach was asked whether he had concerns about the number of damaging stories being leaked from inside his squad. It was put to him that Kevin De Bruyne was unhappy not to have been deployed as a No10 in the Italy match – the Manchester City player is expected to get his wish against Ireland at the expense of Marouane Fellaini – and that the squad have become tired of listening to their manager rowing back to his own playing career. Perhaps most significantly there was a suggestion that during a behind-closed-doors training session this week the players had their say on where things are going wrong tactically.
Wilmots gave a not wholly convincing answer to the last point. “Yesterday [Thursday] we changed the system and there were no discussions,” he said. “We made one mistake [against Italy] and we conceded a goal, so it’s normal to discuss that. I gave my opinion, the players did likewise on the field and then we continued. It’s only normal you do so at training.”
Pushed further on his players’ input, Wilmots said: “I’m the man in charge, I make the decisions.”
The presence of Thibaut Courtois alongside him was presumably a PR move designed to present a united front after the fallout from the defeat against Italy, when the Chelsea goalkeeper said that Belgium had been “outclassed on all fronts” and “tactically, technically and organisationally we came up short”. Wilmots became aware of those quotes after the match and it has been reported in Belgium that the two had a frank conversation on the plane on the way back to Bordeaux.
Courtois’s take on his manager’s tactics four days later included a few mixed messages. “We’re all winners, I was a little frustrated after the match, perhaps we didn’t do what we needed to do in that game, but we need to learn the necessary lessons,” he said. “It was constructive criticism and we’ve worked on it as a team.”
When the issue was brought up again a few minutes later, Courtois tried to shift the blame away from his manager and said: “Perhaps I was slightly misinterpreted. I think we were well positioned tactically but at times people didn’t necessarily do their job; that’s where we had some issues and we discussed that internally.”
Rather reluctantly, O’Neill gave his take. “It seems as if there is talk about friction in the camp as soon as they don’t beat Italy; Italy are a top‑class side, a tournament side. I think people then start comparing Belgium and Holland, with Holland having disharmony in their camps [in the past]. I think people do that just because they’re geographically quite close. I don’t see anything other than that. I think Belgium will be up for the game, they’ll be raring to go and we will be as well.”
O’Neill stressed the importance of Ireland showing composure in possession, as they did during the 1-1 draw against Sweden in Paris on Monday, and the Ireland manager also made the point that his players “can’t afford 15- to 20-minute periods where we fall into a lull” against opponents as strong as Belgium.
As for that question about the Belgium players to whom he would be happy to give an Irish passport, O’Neill eventually got around to answering it. “It would be a number,” the manager he said. “How significant that number is will probably depend on the game.
“They’re very talented. No question about it, all playing big club football. And they would maybe look at us and feel as if some of our players are not playing at the level that they play at every single week.
“So I think they would feel that they have an advantage. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010