It has been close to five years since the FAI appointed Martin O’Neill as the Republic Of Ireland manager. A poll at the time would surely have attracted at least 75% support from the public and media. Five years in football these days is a long time, though, more so in club management. In international management, it is two qualifying campaigns and if successful, it can lead to two major tournaments. There is a different feel to international football and perhaps this leads to different perspectives.
There was a feeling among the Irish public that we hadn’t the best generation of players available and that Martin often punched above his weight at club level. Being from the island of Ireland people felt that O’Neill would have a good grasp of Irish culture and knowledge of players, which is probably something his predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni lacked.
O’Neill guided Ireland to the European Championships in France back in the summer of 2016. In qualifying, we had arguably surpassed expectations. Martin had developed a strong mental bond in the squad, whilst being very well organised and difficult to beat. They defeated Bosnia in the playoffs en-route to France who contained some quality players in the likes of Pjanic, Dzeko, Kolasinac and Lulic.
Despite getting mauled by a Hazard/De Bruyne-inspired Belgium in the opening game of the championships, Ireland showed great resolve in getting four points from their final two games against Sweden and Italy to qualify for the round of 16. In doing so the dogged Irish would set up a tasty looking date with hosts France. Sensationally the Irish would take the lead thanks to a penalty from Robbie Brady. In the second half, however, Antoine Griezmann scored twice to send the eventual finalists France through.
At home, the Irish public were clearly very proud, particularly given the lack of top quality talent in the squad. The campaign as a whole was rightfully seen as a major success. Martin O’Neill along with his right-hand man Roy Keane were almost eulogised in the media. It had appeared that a clear identity of the ‘fighting Irish’ had returned.
World Cup Qualification Heartache
Fast forward to October 2017 and it seemed to be business as usual. In the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign for Russia, Ireland had put in a classic away performance in Wales to send them through to another playoff and end the Dragons’ quest in their own backyard. The Republic would go through the whole campaign unbeaten away from home. Despite this feat, there were murmurs of discontent about the type of football Ireland were producing.
In the playoffs, Denmark stood in Ireland’s way of making it to two major tournaments on the bounce. Although the first leg in Copenhagen was not a great affair, at 0-0 you would suggest the job was done. In the second leg in Dublin, however, Ireland were smashed 5-1. Their hopes of going to Russia vanished in one night.
Clearly, O’Neill had witnessed his worst defeat as Irish boss and suddenly it appeared the fans and media had turned against him. Further questions were asked about the role of Roy Keane in all of this. The odd vulture that was circling around the head of Martin previously, had now turned to a wake of vultures.
Opinion Turns Against O’Neill
Suddenly every man and his dog suggested that the type of football Ireland were playing was dreadful to watch. Why can’t we play attacking football? Why can’t we go at the opposition? Should this player be playing? Why is that player playing? It appeared, by this stage, that O’Neill was getting criticism not just for the result or performance against the Danes, but the football he was playing generally.
Ireland often sat back, soaked up pressure and played direct/long balls forward. Pundits criticised O’Neill for not trying to play through midfield. It was possible that the public were brainwashed by such criticism. In truth, however, Martin hadn’t changed. This was the style that had proven very successful in getting Ireland to one major tournament and almost another.
Is there a sense of entitlement? The Republic of Ireland is a small country and is not a major football nation. Gaelic games and Rugby are more popular in Ireland. These games see a far higher attendance than of those in the League Of Ireland for example. Having said that, the country always had a fighting spirit culturally.
Ultimately if you haven’t got a fantastic pool of players to choose from, you are limited in what you can achieve. There is no Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Shay Given for Martin to call upon from the recent past. As for the football, even when Jack Charlton had talent like Liam Brady, Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton, Ronnie Whelan to choose from, he played long ball football.
Over his tenure, it is clear that Martin O’Neill has produced results and often over-achieved in doing so. Perhaps the recent 4-1 Nations Cup defeat in Wales hasn’t helped, nor has the Roy Keane row with Harry Arter. The position of Keane is something that could be looked at. As far as fans and pundits though, you do wonder if a change is desired for change’s sake. Aside from the possible exception of Declan Rice, Ireland are not blessed with up and coming talent. The grass isn’t always greener.