Saturday 21 September 2019

Martin O'Neill's triumph of real substance

‘Now that O’Neill has had a conclusive last laugh, it’s as well to admit that his instincts proved to be right’
‘Now that O’Neill has had a conclusive last laugh, it’s as well to admit that his instincts proved to be right’
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

This is Martin O'Neill's moment. You would have been forgiven for thinking after the Germany match that the victory was all about Wes Hoolahan.

And last week it was Jon Walters who made the headlines. But our qualification for the European Championships owes more to the manager than it does to anyone else. Above anything else, this is his triumph.

You could argue that this is a pretty reductive way of looking at it. Campaigns aren't won by just one person and our topsy-turvy road to France featured contributions from a large cast of characters. One of them wasn't even Irish. Valeri Qazaishvili from the little town of Ozurgeti proved to be a key contributor when his goal gave Georgia the victory over Scotland which put us back in the hunt. That was on September 4. It's worth remembering that as recently as three months ago Martin O'Neill seemed to be the only person who still thought Ireland had a chance of qualifying. Qazaishvili turned out to be the Georgian for Mackay.

O'Neill deserves the lion's share of credit now that things have turned out alright because he took the lion's share of criticism when they were going wrong. His insistence, after the draw at home to Scotland seemed to have put a definitive kibosh on things, that we could still make it now looks like a piece of prophecy on a par with Alf Ramsey's declaration that England were going to win the 1966 World Cup.

Yet I detect a slight reluctance out there to give him his full due. Some of the praise has a dutiful if not downright grudging feel to it. It's as though having criticised his approach, his selections and his tactics for most of the campaign, we're reluctant to admit that O'Neill has been proven right. It's more comforting to suggest that the spirit of the players rather than the expertise of the manager was the most important thing.

There's no shame in having got things wrong about O'Neill. The old "But you were highly critical of him in the past," number which the RTé panel have been subjected to since things picked up is just so much nonsense. Pundits who said Ireland weren't playing well when Ireland weren't playing well are hardly discredited because Ireland did play well subsequently. In fact, it's the apologists rather than the sceptics who've ended up with egg on their face. Whither, "we just don't have the players," now? It turned out we did have the players. They just took a while to find their form. It was never outlandish to suggest this team should be good enough to make the finals.

But now that O'Neill has had a conclusive last laugh, it's as well to admit that his instincts proved to be right. And there's no point waiting in the long grass the way some of Trapattoni's critics did at the last European finals. Whatever happens next summer, O'Neill has already proved himself to be the right man for the job.

In retrospect, even when qualification seemed unlikely, the team displayed the same stubborn self-belief as the boss. Three times in their first five games they entered injury-time with the result going against them, drawing 1-1 with Georgia and trailing both Germany and Poland 1-0. And three times three different players produced last-gasp goals to keep the dream alive. This is the kind of thing a team which qualifies does. The concession of late goals, on the other hand, can suggest a lack of the right stuff. Steve Staunton was denied an away win in Slovakia which would have restored his credibility by an injury-time equaliser, Brian Kerr's team might have qualified for the 2006 World Cup had they not conceded a similar score away to Israel. And the beginning of the end of Trapattoni's reign was signalled by a David Alaba equaliser for Austria in the 93rd minute at the Aviva during the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. But no matter how things were going for O'Neill's side, you couldn't write them off till the final whistle.

They seemed a different side after the Georgian reprieve. The win over Germany was the kind of home result we hadn't been able to produce since the days of Mick McCarthy. But it still had the feel of a glorious one-off, one of those backs-to-the-wall upsets with no real long-term implications that our Northern neighbours have been prone to pulling off. Monday night was an achievement of greater magnitude, a dominant performance against quality opposition which called to mind the victories over Croatia and Serbia in the ultimately fruitless qualifying campaign for the 2000 Euros.

In fact, the play-off victory with its cagey and well-organised away leg coupled with a more expansive home performance was uncannily reminiscent of the kind of European displays Celtic used to give under O'Neill, most notably in their march to the 2003 UEFA Cup final.

Back then many of us used to fantasise about O'Neill as the ideal Republic of Ireland manager before reluctantly admitting that he was too big for the job. In those days he was often mentioned as a likely successor to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United or maybe even a possible England manager. Yet his time at Aston Villa and Sunderland saw the man's stock depreciate to such an extent that there were even some naysayers when he was offered the Ireland job though he seemed the obvious candidate. For O'Neill, as well as for Ireland, Monday night marked the end of a Lost Decade.

Let's not get carried away. Steering the Republic of Ireland to qualification didn't require a miracle. The miracles were worked by Michael O'Neill in Northern Ireland, Gianni di Biasi in Albania and the alliterative Lars Lagerback/Heimir Hallgrimsson double act in Iceland, all of whom secured automatic qualification for fifth-seeded teams. Nine of the 24 qualifiers were seeded below Ireland when the original draw was made. We were seeded to be runners-up in our group. However, it shows how much Ireland improved that the Bosnia team which we mastered with such apparent ease had been the top seed in their group and were the highest-ranked side in the play-offs. O'Neill made the team better as they went along. Which is what management is all about.

This particular European qualification feels very different from the last one. The fervour with which Monday night's result was greeted made it feel as though the fact that Ireland had also made the 2012 Championships had somehow been wiped from the collective memory. It's fair to say that Ireland under O'Neill command a level of public affection that they never did under Trapattoni.

Perhaps that has as much do with the supporters as with the team. I remember writing after the first Germany match that the public was in the mood to fall in love with the national soccer team again. You could sense that the mood had changed. After over a decade of toxic post-Saipan cynicism people were fed up of it. They wanted to get back to the days of giving the team a break and cheering them on wholeheartedly.

Irish football was unlucky to be the whipping boy during two particularly unpleasant periods in our national life. First it was a victim of the bumptious boastful blowhard atmosphere of the Tiger era, getting subjected to ludicrous abuse for our failure to reach for the sky and win the 2002 World Cup. Then it collided with the post-crash, "We're the worst at everything, we're a laughing stock," mood. Rugby and Gaelic games were used as big sticks to beat the game everyone suddenly loved to hate.

It's easy to imagine the Roy Keane of a few years ago on ITV mocking the jubilation of the fans at making the finals, "I don't know what all the fuss is about. You should really be qualifying before the play-off. They've won nothing." It's different now. Keane, like everyone else, seems fed up of that stuff.

That's why it was vital for the future of Irish soccer that we made it this time and slaked the thirst of the fans for a new positivity. Had we not made it this time, the return to the doldrums of public opinion could have been swift and merciless. This might not have been Ireland's most impressive qualification but it may be the most important.

We have Martin O'Neill to thank for it. Thanks.

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