Archive | November, 2017

End of Road to Russia. Road to Nowhere for O’Neill?

15 Nov

monSo, a long World Cup qualifying campaign has ended and for the fourth successive World Cup, Ireland won’t be attending the greatest football show on earth. From my memories of supporting Ireland, we failed to qualify for the World Cup in my first four qualifying campaigns from 1974 to 1986 inclusive, before Jack Charlton finally led us to that promised land and the greatest month long party Ireland has ever seen and will ever see.

Like the lads now at an age I was in 1986, four successive failures seems like a lifetime at this stage. So many away trips, so much money invested, so much beer put away, family sacrifices, domestic rows with football widows (and some widowers), lost passports, sleeping in kips, not sleeping at all but we already look forward to having another go for a not overly anticipated tournament in Qatar in 2022 and the fans will keep faith and fly the flag brilliantly as always.

So where to now for Martin O’Neill and his backroom team? As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Martin O’Neill. He led Celtic to some memorable seasons, brought the team to a UEFA Cup Final in 2003 where 80,000 Celtic fans invaded Seville for an amazing if heartbreaking few days. O’Neill is a proven successful manager (he did have plenty of money to spend however at Celtic), ex-players speak lovingly of his man-management prowess, how he gets in their head and increases their height to ten feet by a quiet word here, a sarcastic word there, a clever intervention elsewhere. O’Neill is hugely proud and honoured to have led Ireland for four years. There have been some great one off occasions, beating Italy in Lille, Wales in Cardiff, Austria in Vienna.

For those memorable one nil wins (why are most/all of our memorable wins 1-0? Stuttgart, Giants Stadium, Hamdpen Park (en route to Euro 88), Germany and Shane Long etc), there is Georgia away this campaign, Serbia at home (beaten 1-0), Scotland away, Bordeaux at Euro 2016 and a Belgian rout and more recently the two play-off games with Denmark. In short and in my opinion, this era has seen a team with no real identity or shape apart from the glaringly obvious and increasingly tiresome attributes of heart, guts, passion and bravery. I say tiresome because I’m sick reading about it and hearing it from every angle, be it O’Neill himself, opposing managers and pundits.

Those attributes should be your starting point and they can and will get you places, as in the wins in Lille and Cardiff showed. Those attributes however seem to be have become our only ones with wit, imagination, passing and movement now reduced to something every other country tries to attain. O’Neill and Trapattoni have reduced Ireland to an eyesore in terms of watching them play. I’m the first to admit and have said publicly that’s it’s a results game and I also stated I didn’t care if we beat Denmark by playing terrible football. Well we played terrible football and we never looked like getting the better of Denmark even after a dream early goal from Duffy in Dublin last night.

Leaving aside the car crash era under the hapless Staunton, Brian Kerr’s philosophy was at least easier on the eye and we saw some reasonably decent football even though his only full campaign (for WC2006) ended disappointingly with Switzerland and France getting draws and wins respectively at Lansdowne Road. Kerr paid the price for 5 draws in 10 games (and only 1 defeat to France at home) and he could consider himself a bit unfortunate not to have had a second full go at qualification but he clearly wasn’t rated by John Delaney who didn’t renew his contract.

It was however under Mick McCarthy that we saw some of the most attractive football from an Irish team and while his qualification record was one success (WC2002) and two heartbreaking failures (WC98 and Euro 2000), McCarthy had to build from scratch after Charlton’s team finally attained pensionable age and he was forced to blood and trust in youth. McCarthy’s young pups played with freedom, daring and added the aforementioned fighting Irish virtues and it worked. Yes he had players such as Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and a certain Roy Keane at his majestic peak, but he also had less gifted players such as Kilbane, Kinsella, Cunningham and Harte, but McCarthy encouraged these kids to play, they responded and they were attractive to watch and results were excellent.

I think it is a completely lazy argument to say we don’t have the players to play passing football. Every kid grows up passing a ball, every kid is coached and encouraged at a young age to pass the ball and move when it’s passed. Our under age international teams are playing progressively and results are improving. Why is it then that in the Trapattoni and O’Neill eras, our players have been forced to revert to cautious, long hopeful ball stuff in the hope of nicking a goal at a set piece or breakaway and clinging on for dear life defensively? I think the clue is in their respective ages.

Football has moved on from the methods of Trapattoni and O’Neill. I have great respect for their achievements and roll of honour. I don’t doubt for a second their commitment to the Irish cause and their love of Ireland. They’ve never embraced however the notion that we actually have players who can and do play football on the floor. They do it at their clubs, we’ve seen it. They’ve also relied too much on more “senior” players in my opinion to the detriment of younger players, Callum O’Dowda apart who’s only recently emerged into the senior team.

I’ve been a fan of McGeady down the years. His appearance as half time sub last night however was baffling and he did nothing of merit in his 45 minutes. I love Wes Hoolahan but he wasn’t going to be able to single-handedly overturn a Danish lead with who else we had on the pitch. Hendrick was anonymous and has been in an Irish shirt since Euro 2016, likewise Robbie Brady. There was nobody snapping at these players’ heels since France because O’Neill just seemed to be like Trapattoni in relying on his old favourites.

Now we have a chance for change in my opinion. Change in managership (O’Neill hasn’t as far as I’m aware signed his contract), change in our reliance on players who patently aren’t performing up to standard (McClean and Duffy apart and Coleman up until his dreadful leg break), change in the playing philosophy of our senior international team.

I’ll defend the players and Manager as best I can against the big event/bandwagon fans who slate players at Lansdowne Road when they make one mistake and snort cocaine in Copenhagen and fall asleep at away games while annoying hosts with in your face “aren’t we great?” videos. I am however increasingly tired of Irish teams only being encouraged to play one way, cautiously with the emphasis on guts, heart and discipline. We have players who can and want to pass the ball. Robbie Keane is gone, but even Robbie would struggle to score goals nowadays the way we’re set up.

Look at what Michael O’Neill has achieved with Northern Ireland. They topped their Euro 2016 qualifying group, were knocked out by an own goal to Wales in the last 16 in France and in their recent play off matches with Switzerland were eliminated by a horrendous penalty decision in the first leg. Yes they played poorly at home, but more than made up for it in Basel with a performance that had those Irish traits of heart and desire and guts, but hey presto, some passing and progressive football. What age is Michael O’Neill again? Didn’t he achieve European progress with Shamrock Rovers in 2011? Did he do those things relying only on commitment and passion? No he did not.

Last night’s hammering to Denmark has been coming in my opinion. The chickens came home to roost big time despite Duffy’s early goal. We were in trouble at half time and by the hour mark we were a shambles.

Some of the players deserved better than that. Our proper, vocal and knowledgeable fans certainly deserved better. We can and should do better. Is it too much to ask?