Monday 24 October 2016

Eamonn Sweeney: Watching Martin O'Neill's Ireland is more dispiriting than Trap's final days

It's not the despair I can't stand, it's the hope, writes Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

Ireland striker Daryl Murphy tries to get the better of Scotland's Charlie Mulgrew. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Ireland striker Daryl Murphy tries to get the better of Scotland's Charlie Mulgrew. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

This was a classic battling Irish away display against superior opposition. The only problem was that we were at home and the opposition was mediocre, only not as mediocre as we are.

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Fourteen years on from the victory over Holland under Mick McCarthy and we still haven't won a game over a side ranked in the world's top 30.

Scottish fans may well have fond memories of the rabid Nationalist character McGlashan from the '90s BBC comedy series Absolute. He used to wonder why, when every little place in Eastern Europe got an independent country of its own, Scotland kept being left out. The current European Championships qualifying campaign is guaranteed to leave you with that McGlashan feeling.

Wales score a thrilling victory over Belgium, Iceland perform more heroics to turn over the Czech Republic and the Republic of Ireland? We don't even have the consolation of that old 'players simply aren't there' number anymore.

Wales and Iceland are hardly coming down with world-class talent after all. For that matter neither are Scotland but they provided what little constructive football was on show at the Aviva.

The contrast between the two goals speaks volumes about the difference between the two teams, Jon Walters opener for Ireland coming from a set-piece, Shaun Maloney's equaliser resulting from Scotland's determination to get the ball down and pass it around.

Both goals were fortunate. Ireland's was offside while Scotland's owed much to a wicked deflection off John O'Shea. But these are teams who need the rub of the green. They are fighting it out, not for automatic qualification, but for third place and a play-off spot. And it is a battle Scotland are winning and will win, not least because this draw gives them the advantage over Ireland in the head-to-head standings which means we will need to finish a point ahead of them to make the play-offs.

That's possible of course. But to do so we'll need to beat either Germany at home or Poland away and maybe do both. And this is a team which has got into the habit of never quite doing enough.

We can damn them with the usual faint praise about honest effort, hard work, not getting the breaks etc, but the truth is that watching Ireland under Martin O'Neill is an even more dispiriting experience than watching them in the final days of the Giovanni Trapattoni reign.

Trapattoni's negativity after all seemed part of a consistent philosophy of the game, O'Neill's seems to issue from a general lack of belief.

There have been Aga Khan Cups with less hoof in them than this Irish display. From early in the game our only attacking weapon seemed to be a long high ball struck in the general direction of Walters.

That this proved occasionally effective owes much to a wholehearted display on the part of Walters but by the end the balls being lamped into the box were being mopped up by a not greatly discomfited Charlie Mulgrew and Co. It is not as if Mulgrew was facing anything he hadn't seen before from the likes of Dundee United and Partick Thistle.

In these circumstances the replacement of Wes Hoolahan by Robbie Keane with 20 minutes left was tantamount to an admission of tactical bankruptcy. Hoolahan has had better games but he still showed glimpses of the subtlety required to break down a packed defence. By withdrawing him O'Neill was effectively saying that for the rest of the game we would play hopeful balls into the box and pray that one of them broke kindly for us. None of them did and we didn't deserve any better.

It was striking too how mean-spirited an Irish performance this was, replete with the kind of high elbows and late challenges which the simple-minded are apt to mistake for commitment.

For the second game in a row James McCarthy might have walked. Instead he stuck around to give his typical shoddy display for his adopted country. The rottenness of McCarthy's performances in this campaign seem somehow to epitomise the manner in which the bright hopes which greeted O'Neill's accession have almost entirely dwindled away.

There will be 24 teams at the next European Championships. We will not be among them. And perhaps it's time to take a serious look at the whole state of Irish football and ask why it is that we cannot rise to the occasion in the same way that other smaller and apparently prouder nations do.

John Delaney and the FAI's antics cannot be held responsible for displays like this but they surely don't help. A fish rots from the head.

Meanwhile, we plough on, waiting to be finally put out of our misery. In the words of John Cleese's headmaster character from the film Clockwise, "It's not the despair I can't stand, it's the hope."

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