Football

O'Neill's Era Is Done - We Must Now Decide Whether The Irish Team Is Worth Caring About

O'Neill's Era Is Done - We Must Now Decide Whether The Irish Team Is Worth Caring About

For how much longer can Irish football be used for someone else's redemption story?

We have been before: Mick McCarthy probably stayed on too long; Trapattoni definitely did.

After another defeat to Wales, verdicts on whether Martin O'Neill has done so too are now beginning to assume a Trapesque certainty.

Some nations stand and watch the final, gloamy twilight of their sporting heroes out of a kind of noble loyalty; Irish football allows itself to become an instrument for managers to prove their point out of little more than a useless hope.

And here we are again.

Since being smithereened 5-1 by Denmark and a publicly flirting with Stoke City, what has Martin O'Neill actually achieved?

He remains tormented by the lack of technical excellence among his players, but how is there no coherent system of plan to bring the best out of them? He may not have the kind of daily access to players he had at club level, but he has had eleven months to at least show something.

Advertisement

While O'Neill has been dealt the weakest squad of players in generations - and the responsibility for this lies far beyond him - it is also true to say that however meagre the sum of the squad's parts, O'Neill isn't meeting it.

No discernible style or approach has been thrashed out since the Denmark humbling.

Tonight resembled a kind of dreary consistency in team selection by the standard of the last eleven months.

The 3-5-2 experiment in Turkey was dropped against France, resurrected against the US and dismissed again in Cardiff, only to surface again in Poland only days later. That system was used again against Denmark on Saturday, and it got an outing again last night.

Last night's two personnel changes - one enforced - was also the fewest number of changes made by O'Neill to a team selection this year.

While some nations have the luxury to remain confounded by the UEFA Nations League, Irish fans have been luckless enough to clearly grasp the stakes.

Advertisement

Failure to beat either Denmark or Wales at home would mean relegation, and the assurance of a third seed and more difficult draw for Euro 2020 qualification.

Yet in spite of that clarity and successive preludes of astonishing fortune - if Irish fans could pick four players to have missed these games, then chances are that Eriksen, Bale, Ramsey, and Ampadu would be the four picked - Ireland seemed happy to shuffle on; content to stave off embarrassment for at least another month.

Ireland did that for 45 minutes against a callow Welsh side, featuring five players aged 21 or under; lobotomised without Ampadu, Ramsey, and Bale.

Granted, Ireland created little but they did at least fulfill their manager's request to play slightly higher up the pitch. Ireland didn't press well - Cyrus Christie did so aggressively while Harry Arter, rather than doing so too, fell back and made Ireland absurdly easy to play through - but they did at least try.

From the start of the second half, however, Ireland again dropped deep.

By this stage, the game mirrored Saturday's: Ireland showed no anxiety about the actual competitive prize at stake, but instead seemed happy to just get by until the next game; appearing bewilderingly keen to settle for a respectable version of nothing.

Advertisement

Once Harry Wilson scored, the fact that Ireland have achieved nothing in the last year was laid bare.

The 3-5-2 system - the year's ostensible product - was abandoned within 15 minutes.

Ireland ended up chasing the game in a 4-3-3 formation that they hadn't played at all this year, with James McClean at left-back, Cyrus Christie still in midfield and Shane Long playing wide. There was no cogent, rehearsed plan to chase the game. Instead, there was blind panic and blind hope.

A series of Irish attacks perished as Sean Maguire and Harry Arter sprinted forward, and while gesticulating for passing options were robbed of possession. Wales, of course, created far more chances and should have won the game by more than a single goal.

A failure to trust attacking patterns has been the kernel of Ireland's disintegration over the last year. As soon as goals were conceded at home to Denmark and away to Wales, Ireland panicked and were caught out: the concession of three first-half goals on the counter-attack in successive competitive games must be a kind of record.

Evidently, none of that has been addressed in eleven months. Based on that evidence, how likely is it that these issues are fixed by the time qualification starts in March?

Advertisement

History will be relatively kind to Martin O'Neill's reign. He has had an outstanding managerial career and has had some fine achievements with Ireland, but it is over now. He has made memories that will live on, but something is fundamentally broken.

There are larger problems for someone else to address.

The team has no recognisable identity or way of playing. It may never again score a goal. Selection is erratic. Of the two genuine talents unearthed in the last year, one will be kept out of the team by the captain and the other wants to play for England.

The stakes are no longer about qualifying for Euro 2020 because in an extraordinarily successful era for Irish sport, there is one glaring exception.

Now is not the time to ask whether the Irish soccer team can be successful. It is time to ask whether the Irish soccer team is a team worth caring about.

More than an hour after the stands emptied in the Aviva Stadium, a group of Irish fans could be heard singing to a few Welsh fans in the corner of Slattery's pub.

'What's it like, what's it like, what's it like to have a dream?'

See Also: Irish Player Ratings As O'Neill's Reign Enters End Game Against Wales

 

 

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

You may also like