Eamonn Sweeney: Steve Staunton did far better than Martin O'Neill is doing
Published 21/06/2015 | 17:18
Worst qualifying campaign ever? Unless something changes dramatically in the Republic of Ireland's final four games in Group D, that's got to be the verdict on our attempt to make it to the 2016 European Championship finals.
Right now we're underachieving to a quite spectacular extent.
Steve Staunton's much mocked spell at the helm is usually considered to be the nadir for the international team. But in fact Staunton did far better than Martin O'Neill is doing at the moment. In the 2008 European Championships qualifying campaign Ireland beat Slovakia and Wales at home and drew the away matches against both of them.
Two years later Slovakia were good enough to make it past the group stages of the World Cup finals, knocking out holders Italy on the way. They were better than the Scottish team against whom we've managed to take just one point out of six and at least as good as the Polish side sitting second in our group. For all his problems, Staunton managed to steer Ireland into third place in Group D, which would have earned us a play-off if repeated in the current competition.
Instead it looks like, barring an unlikely revival, we'll finish up in fourth, a catastrophic result. There are those who say this is merely business as usual for Ireland. We've only qualified for two of the last ten major tournaments so what are we complaining about?
But the fact is that next year's European Championship finals will be the first 24-team competition, thus making it the easiest ever major football tournament to qualify for. Had this system been in place previously, Ireland would have made the play-offs for the 2008 and 2004 finals and qualified outright in 1992, 1996 and 2000. You have to go back to the qualification campaign for the 1972 European Championship finals, which took place in the bad old days before Liam Tuohy and Johnny Giles brought the international team into the modern era, for the last time we finished outside the top three in this competition. This isn't business as usual but a new low.
Surely it isn't too much to ask Ireland to be among the top 24 in the tournament. The Irish Examiner, somewhat mischievously, headlined a Liam Brady column, 'Ireland: the 25th best team in Europe', after Brady suggested that the simple reason we won't be in the finals is because there are 24 better sides than us. In reality, taking the play-off contenders into account, we don't look any better than 29th at the moment.
As it stands right now, the direct qualifiers will include Iceland, Wales, Slovakia, Northern Ireland, Austria and Hungary, while Albania, Norway, Slovenia, Israel and of course Scotland should all make the play-offs. The old 'we just don't have the players' excuse doesn't really hold water when an Iceland team containing players from Cardiff City, Charlton Athletic, Rotherham United, Bundesliga second division side Nurnberg and Sandnes Ulf of the Norwegian second tier leads Group A after scoring home wins over Holland and the Czech Republic, the kind of results we never seem capable of.
And what of Northern Ireland? Most fans down here would consider them lucky to get more than a couple of players on a combined Irish team yet they sit second in their group. Only five of the 13 players Michael O'Neill used in their draw against Romania last weekend are at Premier League clubs and only three of these - West Brom's Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley and Southampton's Steven Davis - are first-team regulars. The North are making their way to France on the backs of journeymen from the likes of Hamilton Academical, Brentford, Fleetwood Town, Derby County and Blackburn Rovers.
Wales may have Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey but the bulk of their players come from the same kind of clubs as ours, Swansea City, Crystal Palace, Hull City and Reading. Yet they have taken four points out of six from a Belgian team crewed by players from the elite clubs of European football, while we have taken two out of nine against Scottish and Polish sides ranked below us when the draw was made.
It's not as though we're in a group of death. Poland are actually the lowest-ranked third seed in the competition, while Scotland won just three games out of ten in the last World Cup qualifiers. We were a lot more fortunate than Slovakia, who found themselves drawn in the same group as the top-ranked first seeds Spain and second seeds Ukraine. Their response? They've won six out of six, beating Spain at home and Ukraine in Kiev with a team which includes players who ply their trade in Hungary, Qatar, Greece and the scarcely mighty Slovakian league.
Slovakia do have Marek Hamsik, who's had an outstanding season for Napoli in Serie A, but Ireland have Seamus Coleman, perhaps the finest full-back in the Premier League and a player whose inability to produce the same form for his country seems symptomatic of a general failure to get our act together.
It's perhaps not surprising that the big story of this qualifying campaign has been the upsurge of the minnows. That 24-team formula gave hope to countries who'd normally consider qualification beyond them. Ireland, on the other hand, have shrunk from rather than risen to the challenge. We were, after all, seeded to qualify but right now we are the only second seeds not, at least, in a position to make the play-offs. That's how badly we've underperformed.
Yet I'm not sure we realise just what a terrible indictment it will be of the team should we fail to even make the play-offs. I've heard it said that Northern Ireland, for example, are lucky because they were drawn in a weak group. But how weak a group would it have to be before a team who can only take one point from six against Scotland would qualify from it? Fourth place is currently also filled by Belarus, Cyprus, Estonia, the Faroe Islands and Montenegro. These are our peers right now. We are in no position to condescend to anyone.
Why have we been so poor when the beginning of Martin O'Neill's reign was attended by so much optimism? It's hard to say but it's impossible to miss the general air of lassitude and enervation which characterises our performances at the moment. It's as though the team and management have been infected by the feeling of malaise which hangs over the game in this country.
Maybe it doesn't matter that in comparison with the GAA and the IRFU the FAI is regarded by most sports fans with a mixture of amusement and contempt. Maybe it doesn't matter that John Delaney seems perpetually surrounded by controversy. Maybe it doesn't matter that the FAI fritter away money pulping match programmes and despatch stewards to stamp out peaceful dissent on the terraces. Maybe it doesn't matter that Roy Keane's attention seeking antics off the pitch are another distraction for players who may be wondering if they'll be coming in for the lash in his next autobiography. Maybe it doesn't matter that the League of Ireland, provider of so many top-class international players in the past, seems neglected. Maybe it doesn't matter that the League of Ireland champions get €100,000 while the FAI's CEO is on €360,000 a year, Maybe it doesn't matter that we've been chasing Jack Grealish with our tongues hanging out to an extent that devalues the green jersey.
Maybe none of these things matter. But they surely don't help. O'Neill's own decisions are poor at times; he seems determined to marginalise Shane Long and reluctant to give Wes Hoolahan his due. But sometimes an international team is the embodiment of a national sporting spirit. And there is something rotten in the state of Irish soccer.
When we end up sitting at home next summer watching England, Wales, Northern Ireland and probably Scotland strutting their stuff in France, it will be as cruel a blow as the game has ever suffered in this country.
Singing Wolfe Tones songs in the pub won't be much consolation then.
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