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Five years on and Ireland still stuck

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Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is pictured with substitutes (l-r) Kevin Doyle, Anthony Stokes and Paul Green in his first match in charge, a friendly win over Latvia in November 2013.

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is pictured with substitutes (l-r) Kevin Doyle, Anthony Stokes and Paul Green in his first match in charge, a friendly win over Latvia in November 2013.

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is pictured with substitutes (l-r) Kevin Doyle, Anthony Stokes and Paul Green in his first match in charge, a friendly win over Latvia in November 2013.

From an initial wish-list of not just winning but doing so with panache, on his fifth anniversary of his first match at the helm, Ireland manager Martin O'Neill would be content to take a victory of any sort.

When the man who on two previous occasions said no to FAI chief executive John Delaney finally said yes in late 2013, the red carpet was rolled out for his unveiling at the Gibson Hotel.

An ideal first game, against a Latvian side ranked 116 in the world, allowed the feelgood factor radiate. The return of Roy Keane to the FAI fold, via a packed midweek press conference, had been incident-free, not that it lasted long.

"A little bit of volatility does nobody any harm," was O'Neill's opening take on his rockstar assistant, still underestimating the proportion of grief Keane would eventually cause during his tenure.

The squad, selected by caretaker boss Noel King, gave the crowd of 37,000 something to shout about, winning 3-0 against the minnows who failed to register a shot on target.

Reality soon kicked in. Richard Dunne retired from international football, Robbie Keane was losing his pace and six matches went without victory.

It was only when the whipping boys of Oman rocked up in September 2014 that the they stopped the rot, just days before Aiden McGeady pinched a late three points in Georgia. That opening victory of the 2016 European Championship qualifiers would prove the bedrock for reaching the finals in France, even if they only got there by finishing third in the group and navigating the play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina.

By that stage, O'Neill has successfully integrated a quartet ignored by his predecessor, Giovanni Trapattoni, into his first-choice side. Séamus Coleman gripped the right-back slot, James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick harnessed his midfield and Robbie Brady came of age as the team's lynchpin.

The finals themselves, albeit from a slow start of one point from six, energised the Irish public, both the 30,000 who travelled to France and those at home.

To the pairing's credit, they also mothballed the Lansdowne Road curse. Not since beating Holland 1-0 in 2001 had a competitive win been recorded against a higher-ranked until substitute Shane Long slayed world champions Germany.

Then there was the downside. O'Neill's handling of the Jack Grealish situation, ignoring the best talent in the U21 ranks and a Premier League player, for the 2014 friendlies in America backfired. England reignited their interest and the Aston Villa winger eventually defected a year later.

How they could have done with the livewire as Ireland were also unable to build upon a strong start to a World Cup campaign.

O'Neill made much of their fourth seeding, which of course his reign contributed to, yet top seeds Wales had overachieved in the Euros while Serbia and Austria were no great shakes. Ireland couldn't manage to beat any of the trio at home, scoring just once as well, leaving them reliant on James McClean's moment in Wales to snaffle a play-off.

Ahead of tonight's friendly against his native country, O'Neill has a win record of just 36pc from his 53 games. Attendances are down and the team's profile in the public psyche is being tested all the time by the rugby ascent.

A lack of talent operating at the highest level is constantly cited, even by O'Neill himself, as a factor in Ireland's demise but that argument rings hollow when Greg Cunningham, who started in the Premier League at the weekend, didn't make the final list of 29 players.

As Delaney has said, the FAI don't recruit O'Neill and Keane to make up the numbers. Results and qualification for major tournaments are expected of a duo understood to have earned so far between them around €10m, including their Euro 2016 bonuses.

Replacing the management team won't cure Irish football's ills, particularly given the archaic governance structure in the FAI, but it could be part of the solution. The financial constraints of the association, caused by a shambolic funding model, renders a pay-off highly improbable.

That doesn't hide the fact that their team are plummeting at pace. Cutting them adrift might be the best money ever shelled out by the FAI, especially with Mick McCarthy willing and able to answer his country's call.


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