Monday 19 February 2018

Aidan O'Hara: O'Neill can learn from Meagan's fate

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

THE public had lost faith in the team and voted with their feet in the previous home game, a new manager was appointed and went into his first friendly in optimistic mood and although he wasn't too keen to discuss tactics, he hoped to inspire his players with words instead. It was 1969.

After another World Cup qualifying campaign hit the buffers, the documented history of the FAI notes that "the public showed their disenchantment with only a few more than 17,000 witnessing the game against a highly-rated and attractive Hungarian team. The FAI acknowledged the seriousness of the situation by taking a revolutionary step by appointing Mick Meagan as manager with full executive powers for team matters".

Meagan was a popular figure in the Irish game and, before his opening match against Scotland, he was confident of victory.

"He (Meagan) will gather as many of the players as possible in a Dublin hotel tonight and, before the game, will have a heart-to-heart talk with them, individually and collectively," wrote Noel Dunne of the Irish Independent on the eve of the game – September 20, 1969 – while also noting that Meagan "would not talk tactics".

"Having played with most of them," said Meagan, "I believe I can get the best out of them and expect to win."

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Roared on by around 27,000 at Dalymount Park, Ireland duly ripped into the Scots in the first half and earned a standing ovation at the interval for what Dunne describes as "one of the greatest displays of football I can ever remember from an Irish side". Rather quirkily, and something that definitely won't be noted next Friday, Dunne adds in his intro that: "Receipts were £7,000."

After coming back from a goal down to level at the interval there were no goals in the second half as the impetus and enthusiasm evaporated from the players and crowd, although there is no mention of Mexican waves or music designed to enhance anybody's match-day experience.

"From our own point of view," notes Dunne, "the fact that we could be so much better with proper preparation and, one might say, selection, has never been driven home more forcibly."

Meagan lasted one qualifying campaign – a 4-1 defeat against Austria cemented Ireland to the bottom of their qualifying group for the 1972 European Championships with page one of the following day's newspaper describing the performance as "hapless". "It was one of the poorest Irish performances ever, watched by 16,000 spectators," it added.

Less than two years after such optimism, Dunne's report begins with the words "What a shambles!" after Ireland conceded three goals in the opening 31 minutes in a "painful and humiliating experience".

Had Ireland recovered from such a start, added Dunne, it would have been one of the great fairytales but "this was far from being a fairytale; more like one of those old Russian tragedies in which everyone dies".

To recap – Meagan's first game description: "One of the greatest displays of football from an Irish side"; Meagan's last game description (less than two years later): "One of the poorest Irish performances ever"; first-game crowd: 27,000; last-game crowd: 16,000; Half-time reaction – First game: "Stood to applaud at the interval", Last game: "A section of the Dublin public slow hand-clapped the Irish side off the field". Match report headline – First game: "Great display by Irish." Last game: "Republic hit bottom in Dalymount bore"

Anybody who has watched 'Reeling in the Years' will know how often Irish history repeats itself but, as the Meagan case shows, it's far from a modern phenomenon for the public, and media, to go from wild optimism to desolation and back to optimism again once a little time has passed and a new face is presented.

From his experience at Sunderland, Martin O'Neill (above) will know quicker than anybody how a wave of euphoria can suddenly become choppy, leaving a manager struggling to keep his head above water.

Saturday's press conference was undoubtedly impressive but then so too was the support that Ireland players and management received at the homecoming from the 2002 World Cup in the Phoenix Park. A few months later, Mick McCarthy was being booed out of Lansdowne Road.

Brian Kerr's first press conference is one of the happiest events in recent Irish soccer history but despite a degree of revisionism, there weren't many tears shed when he departed after one full campaign in charge.

Steve Staunton began with "OutSTANding" headlines everywhere after a 3-0 home win against Sweden, but so apathetic were the public and media to the end of his tenure that one prominent newspaper man spent most of the 0-0 draw against Germany in Croke Park watching England play France in the Rugby World Cup on his hand-held television.

It's the nature of the beast that almost all managerial reigns end in failure, and it's probably the reason why O'Neill admitted on Saturday that he would have preferred his first competitive game to come sooner so that some of the optimism enveloping his appointment could be harnessed.

The game against Latvia will, in all likelihood, produce a performance of vigour and victory both of which were absent for much of Giovanni Trapattoni's last campaign in charge. But however much people allow themselves to get carried away, O'Neill is canny enough to know that the honeymoon period won't go on for a year, at which point the games will actually mean something.

A man of his experience will know that those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it. One day, many of the rest of us might learn that too.

Irish Independent

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