Vincent Hogan: Martin O'Neill's stamp still missing as Euro hopes die
Eighteen months into his reign, manager has yet to make his mark
The game was over maybe an hour when Martin O'Neill submitted himself to the final courtroom act. Squeezed in by a knot of reporters, their questions delivered in the whispered tone of burglars anxious not to wake somebody upstairs, he spoke in that slow, deliberate way of an undertaker accepting new business.
He is good at this, civil and receptive, flawlessly courteous, yet unknowable too. O'Neill's words opened few windows into the thought processes unspooling behind those stern spectacles. They just came to us as a staccato bundle of distilled nothingness, Ireland's manager selling hope to a world now palpably deaf to the sound.
And it all felt ever so faintly clumsy and insincere. He couldn't hear what the rest of us were hearing, the expiring moan of a campaign that has been sustained on life support (and maybe kept delusional) by late goals against Georgia, Germany and Poland.
People want to be adult and respectful about these things but O'Neill's 18 months in charge have delivered little in the way of indentifiable progress or identity. His team plays not with a single personality, but with small multiples of them. One moment lethargic and forgetful, the next dervish-like and wild.
True, Saturday's first half had been encouraging. But not in any profound, technical way suggesting a point of great discovery. Ireland simply clattered into Scotland.
They were all the things you know that a group of selfless, honest men can be when united in a common cause. That passion met with the tempestuous approval of a big crowd and there were times you could almost feel yourself transported back to the goofy glories of Big Jack.
But then Shaun Maloney's deflected shot proved a setback with this team's copyright stamped all over it.
In the broader context of Europe then, this game was a small-print matter. Not even UEFA's decision to extend next year's Euro finals to a 24-team competition has managed to dignify the O'Neill reign with signs of hope.
When even the pursuit of third place in your group becomes a Himalayan challenge, your dreams are truly threadbare.
O'Neill seems programmed to reject that hypothesis, of course. On Saturday, he sounded like a maths teacher faintly exasperated by the slow uptake of his students. He talked of how "things turn and twist". He told us: "I think that people who have watched football before, particularly qualifying groups, know that. . . you know. . . some things can change around."
And his audience just looked at their shoes. Where is his stamp on this team? What is their identity? Is there a particular system that he believes in?
O'Neill's management of teams has always, reputedly, been rooted more in spiritual man-management than the assimilation of technical detail. He inspires people. When he replaced Steve Bruce at Sunderland, he was taking over a team that had not won in eight Premier League games. They won seven of their next ten.
How? By tapping into the spirit of a charismatic man whose record at Wycombe (successive promotions) and Leicester City (two League Cup successes and a promotion) and Celtic (three Scottish titles and a UEFA Cup final appearance) spoke of someone who understood the energies of a dressing-room.
But is that understanding enough for the international stage, where access to players is strictly rationed and, accordingly, tactic needs to be crystal-clear?
Ireland's set-up looked confused on Saturday. Against more refined opponents, the glaring absence of protection for Robbie Brady at left-back would surely have been ruthlessly exploited. But Scotland's own limitations, plus the searing commitment of an Irish team playing with its foot to the floor, seemed to cover a small multiple of cracks.
The absence of pace, thus, went unpunished. So too the structural confusion.
Ireland's best player, Wes Hoolahan (below), was substituted when he seemed to still have plenty of fuel in his legs. Shane Long got a paltry ten minutes off the bench. The plan looked hopelessly jumbled, yet individual courage sustained it on life-support.
"I still think that we are capable of winning our matches now and making the Germany game pretty dramatic," O'Neill told us to a quiet symphony of sighs. Perhaps he truly believes this. Maybe the great slew of reasons to suspect that this race is run will dissolve in a gloriously redemptive autumn. But where will it come from?
It becomes wearisome asking unkind questions of Irish managers, and sometimes even delusional. But the absence of a clear identity to O'Neill's team is what grates most worryingly here.
Can you recall a single compelling expression of progress since he and Roy Keane were presented to a giddy world in November 2013? No, not one.
Three late goals simply re-wrote the headlines above poor, technically incoherent performances that, in less kind circumstances, would have left Ireland four points poorer in this group. What would the climate be today if Ireland had just five points from six games?
Our problems on the international stage, admittedly, run far deeper than the manager's position, but O'Neill is surely at a point now where he needs to deliver something more than that curate-quiet voice, gently massaging the group arithmetic to suggest that, contrary to appearances, all is still fine and dandy here.
The question has to be asked what is O'Neill's Ireland now? Where is the progress? How, in the past 18 months, have they been seen to grow?
He has a summer to pore over the puzzle now and try summoning a solution.
On Saturday, somebody brought up the name of Jack Grealish again. And mention of the Birmingham kid felt like some kind of default setting for coping with our woes now. The harnessing of hope offered by a teenager who might just, if nothing better distracts him, come and join the green crusade.
Would Grealish have made a difference in Saturday's helter-skelter conflict? Highly doubtful. But his name changed our line of questioning at least as reality came crowding in on Saturday evening.
A small blessing at the end.