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Thursday 13 December 2018

O'Neill has lost the crowd

Bruised Ireland fly to Denmark today but supporters’ patience with boss has run out

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane have presided over an awful run of results this year as they head to Denmark for Monday’s Nations League clash
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane have presided over an awful run of results this year as they head to Denmark for Monday’s Nations League clash
Ireland striker Callum Robinson takes a rare shot on the Northern Ireland goal in last Thursday’s friendly

You can lose matches when you are manager of the Republic of Ireland team.

Just ask Mick McCarthy, who had five defeats in his first six games in charge and went on to enjoy much better times.

But you cannot lose the crowd when you are boss of the Irish side. Again, ask Big Mick as his time with the national side was done when the home support turned on him, and the team, in what would prove to be his final game in charge, at home to Switzerland.

The current Irish side are now in that place. The Lansdowne Road crowd booed at the end of Thursday's 0-0 draw at home to Northern Ireland, but the boos themselves weren't a surprise. The surprise was that so many of those loyal supporters stayed on for the final whistle.

He has lost the crowd so we are now at the end of days when it comes to Martin O'Neill's time as manager. Thursday was the fifth anniversary of his first game in charge but clearly, the side is in regression.

Speaking afterwards, O'Neill was sticking to his guns, insisting that though these were tough times, better days were ahead, things would pick up once the Euro 2020 qualifiers start early next year.

There was a crowd of 31,241 in Lansdowne Road on Thursday night. How many felt - really felt in their hearts - that O'Neill was still the man to lead this team? Outside of O'Neill and his coaching staff, how many would honestly say they look forward to 2019 under the 66-year-old, having endured in 2018 one of the most miserable years of international football?

Here are the facts: eight games in the calendar year, one win (against an under-strength USA), four goals scored in 720 minutes of football, no goals scored in the last three games.

Yes, it's hard to score goals, but you can try: Northern Ireland have failed to score in their last seven away games but they were the only side in Thursday's game who created, who looked like scoring.

Even the choices off the bench for the Republic were off-target - namely the baffling selection of Scott Hogan ahead of Michael Obafemi. Putting on Obafemi would have lifted a downbeat Dublin crowd, as subs James McClean (2012) and Sean Maguire (2017) did on their debuts, but instead, the arrival of Hogan onto the field led to a shrug of indifference.

Stale

O'Neill is not for turning, and that is the problem here. He will talk of a "transition period" and "bedding in" young players, but his methods are stale.

Once again last Thursday night, the Ireland squad arrived at the match stadium with no idea of who was playing or where. The team was named upon arrival in the dressing room.

Of course, as O'Neill tells us, that's what Brian Clough did and it's what Matt Busby did with George Best for his debut. George Best made his Manchester United debut 55 years ago.

O'Neill's assistant is not helping in this time of crisis. And it is a crisis. Roy Keane was overheard to tell Robbie Brady after his display against Northern Ireland that he'd "played like a 14-year-old kid".

Brady didn't have the best game of his 40-cap career on Thursday and looked all at sea at times, but the player is only back from a long-term injury. Brady is a grown man and can take criticism, but words like that from the assistant manager can't help, especially when some nerves are still frayed by events last summer - you know the one, where Keane told a member of the squad that he was "a f***ing p***k" and a "c**t".

It's not all O'Neill's fault. The FAI are now reaping what they sowed when they handed O'Neill a new contract 13 months ago, at a time when no-one was agitating for a new deal.

Any new deal for the manager should have been contingent on the outcome of the World Cup campaign: failure to make the playoffs should have led to an end of his time with Ireland, a poor showing in the playoffs the same.

Ireland lost 5-1 to Denmark, the Irish side looked jaded, confused and rudderless, devoid of ideas and inspiration, but while veterans like Wes Hoolahan and John O'Shea left the stage, the manager stayed on.

Let's be clear about Monday's game in Aarhus. Barring an unprecedented calamity (and by that we mean an 8-0 defeat), O'Neill will be in charge of the side for the Euro 2020 draw, held in Dublin in 15 days' time. European football coming to Dublin is a big deal for this FAI regime and the last thing they want is a manager hunt overshadowing their big day out. But when you lose the crowd it's hard to win them back, as O'Neill will find out.

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