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Martin O’Neill believes criticism directed at England manager Gareth Southgate in recent months has been hugely unjustified.
The former Celtic and Aston Villa boss led the Republic of Ireland to their most recent major tournament appearance at Euro 2016, where they reached the last 16 before exiting 2-1 to hosts France.
But O’Neill, 70, has also experienced the bitter lows of international management — and has expressed empathy for the under-fire Three Lions chief heading into the World Cup in Qatar.
Asked if Southgate has been subjected to harsh treatment by the media, he told LiveScore: “I have to say yes. You’re talking about a manager who has taken his country to a semi-final and a final.
“That’s not bad going, is it? He’s the most successful England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, so there needs to be a bit of context applied.
“England are strong enough to qualify for major tournaments without the Nations League competition, so there’s no real pressure on them to get results in it.
“They were in a tough group playing against tough teams and there was a bit of experimentation in team selection, which was something the manager consciously decided to do.
“All of a sudden, they lose a couple of games and there’s this phenomenal backlash which I’m absolutely sure he doesn’t deserve.
“That’s the worst thing about it. You’re now coming into a tournament wanting to do your best and instead you’re entering under a bit of a cloud — under pressure that really shouldn’t be there given his achievements.”
A disastrous Nations League campaign saw England relegated from the top tier of the competition having taken just three points from six matches, with their humiliating 4-0 home defeat to Hungary a shuddering low point.
Critics have frequently questioned Southgate’s pragmatic approach and O’Neill believes such debate will always rage when a manager posseses depth in attacking areas.
He explained: “I was never blessed with a natural goalscorer with Ireland, but Gareth has some fantastic attacking talent to call on.
“He’s got players like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling who can pop up with the goals, Phil Foden as well. Then playmakers like James Maddison who can help unlock teams.
“Those players would be the envy of many a manager, let me tell you — but even still, there are times when you still have to just sit in and hold what you have, which can sometimes be misconstrued as being negative.
“I accept, though, that if you do play two central midfielders who are on the defensive side, you do open yourself up to criticism if the goals dry up.”
Despite expectations being tempered somewhat, O’Neill does not foresee issues for the Three Lions in progressing from Group B, where they have been drawn alongside Iran, USA and Wales.
The two-time European Cup winner believes a place in the the final on December 18 is not beyond reach.
He said: “I think England are strong, I think they have as good a chance as anyone. When they get out of the group, which I’m sure they will, it’s pure knockout football and anything can happen.
“It all depends on what happens on the day in knockout matches. Can England go on a deep run again? Absolutely.
“It’s a very open tournament. Would I like to see Lionel Messi lift the trophy to round off a phenomenal career? Perhaps I would. But I’m sitting firmly on the fence in terms of a winner!”
On Days Like These: My Life in Football by Martin O’Neill, is available now via Pan Macmillan.
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