PERCHED high in the West Stand while Ireland and Turkey shuffled the ball around Lansdowne Road’s fabled sward in front of a pretty miserable turnout, it was hard not to notice Croke Park’s great bulk rearing up against Dublin’s skyline.
For the record, Turkey won and O’Neill has now served up back-to-back defeats at the Aviva. It was a poor, ragged performance and O’Neill knows he has plenty of work to do and it must be said, there’s not much sign of progress.
But the real story of the day was the attendance. Or the lack of it.
Croker was full last night, full of kids and their parents willing to lash out eighty bucks a pop for One Direction tickets and there is no doubt that the FAI suffered as a result.
They could do with some of the pulling power Niall Horan and his pals possess in spades. Maybe they should have given him ten minutes against Turkey. That would have filled the place.
This really is a serious problem. Forget altogether about the cash the FAI need to fund the stadium and the debt associated with it. This is more fundamental than that.
The hard core which turns up hail, rain or shy has kept the show going over the years and even in the bleak 80s before Jack Charlton was appointed still numbered more than 25,000. Judging by this crowd, even that is now under pressure.
FAI CEO John Delaney was bullish over the weekend about the sale of season tickets and it may well be that the average Ireland fan must now plan far ahead to support his or her team given the desperate circumstances of so many families and for that reason, is waiting for the competitive games to get under way in the autumn.
But still. This was a tiny crowd, almost embarrassing. When you consider that the lower deck of the East Stand was very well populated for the FAI Junior Cup final which preceded the international and not during it, it can only be assumed that many victorious St Michael’s supporters and the dejected Ballynanty faithful decided to give Ireland a miss and head back to Tipperary and Limerick.
The word was that they were given free tickets to watch Ireland play Turkey and even that wasn’t enough to keep them in the ground. Now that is worrying.
After all, one of the main attractions of appointing O’Neill and Roy Keane was the simple fact that both men have the ability to inspire. Clearly, it will take more than Turkey on a pleasant May Sunday evening to shake the floating fan into action.
Given that it was the first of four games in this schedule and that there has been a big gap since the season ended, there was always going to be an element of rustiness involved and so it looked.
As early as the first minute, Rob Elliott had to be lively to deal with a snap shot from Mevlut and the Turkish striker turned from poacher to supplier a few minutes later when Glenn Whelan and Damien Delaney got their wires crossed and left the ball behind ten yards outside the Irish penalty area.
Delaney recovered to cut off the resulting cross but it was an early warning that Turkey were here to play.
So too was Aiden McGeady and he quickly threw his pace and trickery into the mix which, in turn was largely responsible for pushing Turkey back towards their own penalty area.
A big shout for a penalty came in the fifth minute when Shane Long, put through by a delightful Wes Hoolahan pass, battled for the ball with Toprak and seemed to be chopped from behind. The quaintly monikored French referee Ruddy Buguet was having none of it.
That signalled the start of a spell of pressure from Ireland which peaked with a double chance in the 14th minute for Shane Long and John O’Shea, the first part a shot saved brilliantly by Onur and the second an attempt from the Sunderland defender to steer a Hoolahan shot between the posts was cleared off the line.
Then came a clinical thrust from Turkey which caught Ireland cold and ended with a fantastic headed goal. Gokhan Gonul tore down the right flank and unchallenged, swung an inch-perfect cross onto Ahmet Ilhan’s head and he buried he ball in the back of the net.
O’Neill chose to leave his first-choice selection on the pitch at half-time and maybe he should have reached for his bench sooner.
Ireland looked out of sorts and unbalanced and when Ozyakup played a beautifully disguised ball towards Tarik Camda who walloped the ball through Elliot and into the net in the 75th minute, O’Neill looked forlorn and unhappy in front of his dugout.
Within minutes, he had reason to smile, Jon Walters came on for Long in the 65th minute and his first major involvement came in the 77th when he drove into the Turkish box and scored from an acute angle.
That woke Ireland up and they poured forward looking for an equaliser. Another sub, Daryl Murphy had a header saved by Onur but the Turkish defence dug deep and held out.