Paul Hyland: 'Does Martin O'Neill really want to be here?'
EVERYBODY is reaching for an answer and maybe there is one somewhere under the hovering question mark which has characterised Martin O'Neill's management of Ireland but none of the candidates are appealing.
In rough order of importance, based on a totally unscientific but previously reliable canvass, what people want to know is:
1. Does Martin O'Neill really want to be here?
2. Why do some of our best players go into a shell when they pull on a green shirt?
3. Will this be a slow, torpid and probably acrimonious spiral towards October?
4. Can we take any more distractions?
Of the four, the one best illustrated by Seamus Coleman's inexplicable inability to hit a barn door with an RPG is probably the most important.
There will always be managers but these are the players Ireland must rely on for years to come and Coleman in particular.
In the debate which followed the draw with Scotland, some spoke about how Giovanni Trapattoni succeeded in knocking a great deal of the fun out of playing for Ireland.
The Trapattoni operation was grey and sterile, ultra-professional and lacking the 'streak of madness' Roy Keane spoke about and Niall Quinn worried about when he saw this wild element fading away after Mick McCarthy's departure.
Coleman is not having any fun. The bright-eyed, engaging young lad who arrived like a rocket and looked like it was the only thing he ever wanted to do now seems to feel a heavy burden when he pulls on a green shirt.
In the brief window the media is given on the inside of the senior squad bubble and the bits and pieces which filter out, there is no obvious disquiet and no sense of unhappy players.
But there is no sense of energy either, no feeling that everyone is, as O'Neill would say "absolutely delighted".
There's no question that preparation is not fully professional and that the team is spared nothing when it comes to FAI organisation.
But is there any soul in it all. Is anyone enjoying it? Has Roy Keane got his wish? Great facilities but no players.
You get the feeling with a lot of Ireland's young pros that a night in sculpting their hair might be a more likely option than hanging out of a night club bouncer.
Many dismiss the theory that some of Ireland's success in the Charlton/McCarthy days was rooted in the bonds created in a shared vat of alcohol as nonsense and argue that pints can never be a sensible preparation for football but it was never really about the beer. It was the freedom to have one.
It can't be easy to relax in this regime, moving carefully around Roy Keane whose variable moods are as unpredictable as a tornado and always capable of inflicting collateral damage.
Nor can it be easy to figure out O'Neill who seems to encourage his caricature as a ditherer which brings us to the first question and his desire to be an international manage. Has he lost his appetite?
From the outside looking in, O'Neill looks detached. There's no real evidence of the dynamic figure who galvanised Celtic on show. He traded blows with some of the best managers in the world with some success. Distracted is the best word for him and why wouldn't he be?
His life with Ireland has been one rolling theatre of the bizarre and while that's not a bad shield to work behind, a point is reached where the distraction becomes more interesting than the team.
Now, however, there is no room in the debate for distractions of any kind. The focus is firmly on O'Neill because for the next three months, all we can do is dwell on Ireland's failure to fulfil their side of the qualification contract. Win your homes games.
He hasn't done that and if results define the manager, the series of draws since Glasgow last November also display his impact on the public consciousness nicely.
It will be a slow haul through the summer months and the first thing O'Neill will have to deal with when he comes back is the inevitable sideshow surrounding Jack Grealish.
In an ideal world, you'd be happier if he was off dealing with it now as a matter of urgency but that's not a word that readily falls off the tongue in all of this.
It's been a strange, drifting experience from one game to the other and shows no sign of developing sharp outlines until Ireland play Germany in October.