Saturday 16 February 2019

Ireland boss is living dreams of past glories

Hints that frustrated O'Neill might walk away but he needs to change

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill on the sideline at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night.
Pic: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill on the sideline at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night. Pic: Sportsfile

It only took Martin O'Neill a matter of minutes to reach into the history books and defend his current position on the basis of what he'd done in the past.

Once again, the Ireland manager used his (admittedly impressive) experience as a player, winning European Cups and playing in two World Cup finals tournaments, with two unfancied teams, to demonstrate his worth.

When he faced the media on Tuesday night after the loss to Denmark O'Neill, who minutes earlier had walked off during an interview with RTE TV, reacted very badly to a question as to whether his luck had run out.

"What luck? I have won the trophies I have won as a player and a manager, that is simply not true," he said with a frown.

"Everyone is entitled to some luck. I think it was a commendable effort by the team and I think I have the trophies to show."

Defending a 5-1 humiliation on home soil by pointing to a medal won in Hamburg in 1980, before any current Ireland player was born, will grate on the ears of fans who had watched their team torn apart by a superb Danish side.


Problem is, O'Neill is yesterday's man. Not just because he will be 68 years of age when the Euro 2020 finals come to Dublin (whether or not O'Neill is still manager or Ireland qualify, there will be finals football here in three years' time).

John O’Shea consoles Cyrus Christie after the Denmark defeat
John O’Shea consoles Cyrus Christie after the Denmark defeat

But because everything he does is seen through the prism of the past. Football has moved on since O'Neill and Nottingham Forest came up with those miracle wins in Europe. Yet O'Neill has not caught up, still stuck in a moment he can't get out of.

Roy Keane has a different tack. Visiting media who hope to press Keane about past battles with their teams end up disappointed. Keane would point out that a game he played in for Manchester United against Monaco in another lifetime has no relevance to the current Republic of Ireland side facing France. What's done is done and this is now, Keane feels.

But O'Neill feels that his past feats as a player and manager, added to the job he's done with Ireland, should cause him to be appreciated more.

In O'Neill's world, little old Ireland are lucky to have him. We would be much worse off without his presence at the helm, and good luck to anyone in the FAI's HR department who could find someone capable of doing a better job with this batch of players.

Almost every time he speaks about the lack of top-class talent available to him, O'Neill mentions how he was unfortunate not to have a 27-year-old Robbie Keane to call on.

Only last week, he joked that "Robbie was the same age as me" when O'Neill (65) came into the Ireland job. The joke wasn't funny the first time he told it and it loses warmth every time O'Neill cracks it.

Four defeats in 24 competitive games is impressive. What about three wins in 11 games in 2017?

Away form is impressive, positive results in Wales, Austria, Serbia, Denmark. What of the four home win-less battles with those teams?

O'Neill is handsomely rewarded for the job, earning a seven-figure salary. And Roy Keane pockets €300,000 a year for his post. That's more than the Polish FA pay Adam Nawalka, who won automatic World Cup qualification.

The issue is not that Ireland lost a World Cup play-off - we have played in four of them now and only won once. But the manner of the defeat is what's concerning.

The players seemed ill-equipped to deal with what happened in Dublin on Tuesday night. if O'Neill and Keane had prepared them thoroughly, it didn't show.

Basic errors contributed to the calamity but throughout the 180 minutes, Ireland were tactically out-thought and football won.

There is no clamour to get rid of O'Neill today. Soundings suggest that he feels fed up, hurt by the lack of appreciation for the miracle he has worked with Ireland, and could even walk away.

Probably, the same pool of players will assemble, more or less, for the first game of 2018. Perhaps O'Neill can lead the side to glory in 2020.

But he needs to put the scrapbooks and medals away and focus on the job he's paid to do. Become today's man.

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