Wednesday 21 March 2018

Richard Sadlier: Martin O'Neill has, worryingly, taken a leaf out of Trapattoni's book

19 December 2015; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill at the RTE Sports Awards. RTÉ, Donnybrook, Dublin. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE
19 December 2015; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill at the RTE Sports Awards. RTÉ, Donnybrook, Dublin. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Prior to the Republic of Ireland's final two group games in their quest to qualify for the European Championships, Roy Keane said the aim should be to get six points against Germany and Poland. It was hard to see at the time why he thought such a target was achievable. "Why not?" said Keane. Was it just empty-headed cheerleading or did he have genuine belief in the ability of Ireland's players?

It could well be left to him to keep things positive again for the players between now and June. Martin O Neill, if the last few weeks are anything to go on, will be spending the next six months talking up Ireland's opponents and lowering expectations on Ireland and his players. It could be a long six months if we're relying on O'Neill to get us up for this one.

Keane hasn't said yet what he believes Ireland can achieve in Group E but the early signs are that O'Neill is a little worried. Opinions given to the media can often vary wildly from what is privately thought, but he hasn't exactly gone overboard in talking up Ireland's chances this summer. So far he's been dour, downbeat and uninspiring.

He was on the defensive straight away when the draw was made. It couldn't have been much worse, he said. Italy should really have been a top seed, he added, implying that Ireland had been the victim of a quirk of the UEFA co-efficient calculations and ended up with two top-tier countries in their group. Italy have a reputation as one of the leading football nations in the world, but few would put their current squad anywhere near that category. O'Neill ignored all that and wasted no time in getting his excuses in early.

Despite his claims, it could have been a lot worse for Ireland. There were tougher first seeds to get than Belgium. He immediately brought attention to their position at the top of FIFA's rankings but there's hardly a person in world football who believes they belong there.

The way the draw panned out, the final place in Ireland's group came down to either Austria or Italy. You could just as easily see it as a lucky break to have avoided the Austrians given the quality of Bayern Munich's David Alaba and the remarkable performances of Marko Arnautovic this season for Stoke City. Arnautovic on his own looks as if he could torment an Ireland defence. Italy don't have one attacking player who looks in that class, but O'Neill seems determined to build up the Italians as something they're not.

He has repeatedly reminded people of how tough qualification was to achieve. He said he always remained confident when most people had lost hope in the summer, saying qualification was still possible after the failure to beat Scotland in Dublin. He hasn't given as much airtime to Scotland's defeat in Georgia, a result which in the end Ireland relied on. Scotland dropped eight points in their last three games of significance in the group. It's unthinkable to imagine Ireland wouldn't be in the position to gain from such a collapse, but criticism of Ireland and O'Neill were justified until that point.

By talking up Sweden, Belgium and Italy, and stressing his own role in qualification, O'Neill is setting the stage for one of two things to happen at the Euros. Ireland will either fail to progress from the group due to the difficulty of the task, or they will advance thanks to the input of O'Neill himself. Giovanni Trapattoni tried the same trick in 2012.

There are fine margins in every campaign and history is written by the winners, but O'Neill is hardly on the most solid of footings to be sniping back at his critics.

Finishing third in a group and qualifying through a play-off for a tournament that almost half of Europe will contest is hardly the fatal blow against anyone who has spoken out against him during the campaign. He may be only the fourth manager to lead Ireland to the finals of a major tournament but he's the first to have done it by finishing below second in qualification.

I'm not sure what an international manager could achieve that warrants him calling for his critics to be sacked, as O'Neill has recently done, but this isn't it. If he achieves the impossible this summer he can make those kinds of statements. But qualifying wasn't impossible and getting out of the group in June isn't beyond Ireland either.

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