Martin O’Neill’s appointment as manager of Ireland in 2013 was seen as a major coup for the national team. O’Neill was a Premier League manager with considerable pedigree, having enjoyed success at just about every club he had managed (Sunderland perhaps being the only exception). Speaking on RTÉ at the time, pundit Eamon Dunphy hailed his appointment as a progressive step after the much maligned Trappatoni era. He warned that the style of football was unlikely to be overly adventurous – “He likes a big centre forward…he signed Emile Heskey twice!”.
Crucially, however, there was expected to be a more intelligent and astute approach to tactics and team selection. “You won’t get any more of the caveman stuff” Dunphy continued. Indeed, much of the attention at the time was not on O’Neill but on his assistant, Roy Keane. Together, they were viewed as a ‘dream team’ who could get the best out of the Irish team.
That initial excitement has given way to a general malaise around the team and its supporters. The humiliating 5-1 defeat to Denmark last November was disappointing enough. Yet it seems that whatever goodwill remained between O’Neill and the supporters has been diminished by the debacle surrounding O’Neill’s flirtations with struggling Stoke City. The FAI had, of course, made a verbal agreement to extend O’Neill’s Ireland contract beyond the World Cup qualifying play-offs. And yet, following the poor performance against Denmark and the justified criticism that followed, O’Neill chose, rather than to commit to winning Irish supporters back on side, to engage in a protracted negotiation with Stoke over becoming their new manager.
Few would begrudge Martin O’Neill another chance at top-flight club management. What is notable, however, is that his reputation appears to have emerged largely unscathed from his time as Ireland manager. Perhaps his skills are better suited to day-to-day management, where a coach is afforded more time to improve his players and implement his tactical plans, but a number of O’Neill’s managerial attributes should be called into question on the basis of the last two years, and, in particular, that infamous 5-1 defeat to Denmark. His ambition, tactical nous and in-game management were all found wanting in that game, as Ireland were picked apart to end our hopes of World Cup qualification.
O’Neill was an excellent manager, who deserves credit for his achievements at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa. However, that is precisely why our World Cup campaign was so dispiriting. We had good reason to expect better.
O’Neill, of course, took over from Giovanni Trappatoni in 2013. The Italian’s reign was characterised by football of the most dour and conservative kind. At its worst it seemed to eschew pragmatism or any logic whatsoever. There is no tactical justification for brainlessly hoofing the ball up the pitch with no apparent target. The early stages of O’Neill’s tenure did not exactly represent a leap forward in terms of aesthetics or style, but our play was at least imbued with a sense of purpose. We were undoubtedly better and more effective.
The results followed – famous wins over Germany and Bosnia led us to Euro 2016 where we, admittedly with no small degree of fortune, escaped the group. The victory over Italy to send us through to the second round ranks among the greatest Irish performances in the past decade. But throughout the World Cup qualifying campaign, our performances increasingly slid further and further back into the Trappatoni era. The stubborn refusal to pick Wes Hoolahan, invariably our best creative player, cost us results that could and should have put us into contention to top the group. But leaving such notions aside — topping the group would have been an astounding achievement — we were fortunate to make the play-offs, and against Denmark the same flaws that nearly cost us our place there at all proved our undoing at the final hurdle.
The away leg in Copenhagen was uninspiring, but there was a general sense that we could have done a lot worse than the 0-0 draw Ireland took back to the Aviva. The value in a 0-0, however, was that it should have allowed us to take the game to Denmark and play the game on the front foot. Again Hoolahan was left on the bench. His poise and willingness to receive the ball to feet would have been invaluable after we conceded the equaliser. Ireland were very much in the game at that point — what was needed was a sense of calm and intelligence on the ball. Instead, we fell apart. Ireland’s play was dire from that point on — panicked, wasteful clearances and long balls simply allowed Denmark to come at us in waves.
In the second half, O’Neill made a catastrophic series of attacking substitutions when it was already far too late. The manager didn’t so much show his hand as blindly hurl the deck in desperation. O’Neill’s greatest triumph was our collective organisation and discipline in defence. Just as against Belgium and France in Euro 2016, Ireland fell to pieces as all sense of defensive shape evaporated.
There is a reasonable case to be made that Denmark are overall, a better side. In Christian Eriksen and Andreas Christensen, they boast two of the finest performers in this season’s Premier League in their respective positions. If defeat is not necessarily O’Neill’s fault, the scale of the humiliation undoubtedly was. And that is not a basis on which to inspire the team to successful qualification for Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup. The problem is that the FAI don’t appear to accept that much went wrong at all. A verbal agreement was made to extend O’Neill’s contract before the play-offs had even taken place.
The FAI should have had the strength to call time on O’Neill’s tenure following that defeat to Denmark. The fact that they didn’t does not bode well for their confidence in the ability of the Irish team to perform significantly better. This matters because we need a different approach. We need a coach who has a track record not just in achieving results, but in trusting players to pass the ball when necessary. For 10 years, we have suffered from a dearth of confidence in our ability to play passing football from successive management teams. Ultimately, the FAI are responsible. They have not held our coaching staff to account for their failure to trust our creative players.
The public and prolonged negotiations with Stoke come as something of an embarrassment to the FAI. For a week they struggled to hold onto a manager that has arguably lost the support of many Irish fans – a manager they should have parted company with months ago. It is not O’Neill’s managerial acumen that is in question but his ability to inspire the Irish squad to an improved performance in the coming years.
The failure to adequately prepare the team for our most important match in recent years already deflated the mood amongst supporters and, presumably, players as well. That problem has only been exacerbated by O’Neill’s public equivocation over whether to commit to continuing in the role. O’Neill may have chosen to reject Stoke’s offer and continue as manager of the national team. The real humiliation is that it was up to him at all.