Friday 22 February 2019

Comment: Failure to beat Wales won't be the end for O'Neill - but it will make him a zombie manager of a zombie team

Talking point

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at the head of his management team prior to Ireland’s draw against Denmark on Saturday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at the head of his management team prior to Ireland’s draw against Denmark on Saturday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Tomorrow night is Martin O'Neill's moment of truth as Republic of Ireland manager. If his team beat Wales his critics should back off a bit. Victory will prove he retains the ability to coax a big performance from his players.

A draw or defeat, on the other hand, will mean O'Neill's reign has reached rock bottom. The humiliation in Cardiff coupled with Saturday night's surpassingly dull draw with Denmark have made the Nations League a defining competition for the Irish boss. Against Wales it's all or nothing.

O'Neill is in little danger of losing his job. John Delaney clearly wants to keep him at the helm till the crack of doom. The O'Neill Paradox is that the worse the team does the more likely he is to remain.

Wins over Wales and Denmark might restore his reputation to the extent that some English club would make him an offer he couldn't refuse. Otherwise O'Neill and Ireland will remain locked together, like two convicts on the run from the chain gang who hate each other's guts but have no key for the shackles binding them.

Failure to beat Wales won't spell the end for O'Neill but it will make him a zombie manager of a zombie team drifting aimlessly through the international graveyard.

Victory, on the other hand, will count as significant progress because winning at home has proven so patently difficult for Ireland of late. The 2-0 European Championship qualifying play-off win against Bosnia in November 2015 is the last time they beat a team of any note in the Aviva.

Since then Serbia and Denmark have won in Dublin while Wales, Austria and the Danes have drawn here. A Welsh side lacking Gareth Bale provides Ireland with a glorious opportunity to halt this woeful winless run. Ryan Giggs' team looked notably ragged in the 4-1 defeat by Spain on Thursday which was their worst home reverse in twelve years. They are the kind of opposition a manager under pressure should relish taking on.

Should Ireland lose or draw they'll be practically assured of bottom spot in the group (a team unable to beat Wales in Dublin will hardly topple Denmark in Copenhagen). The next Nations League would see us relegated to the dizzying lows of the third flight. On Saturday the numerous gaps in the stands showed the current depths of supporter disillusionment.

Imagine the FAI trying to sell tickets for dates with Kosovo or Belarus in two years' time. A victory is also paramount tomorrow because the only consolation this Irish team ever offers is that of a positive score line. Style, adventure, beauty and other aesthetic values are conspicuous by their absence.

Failure cannot even be whitewashed by soothing talk of progress being made.

After the Denmark defeat last year O'Neill, in the manner of a driver quieting children during a fractious car journey with vague promises of chocolate, dropped hints about a more adventurous approach and the blooding of new talent. To very few people's surprise these have not materialised.

Ireland plod on as before, joyless as grey-faced Communist era Soviet workers labouring at some state enterprise no-one believes in any more. We play football as football should be played. Gaelic football that is. Fans of that sport worried about the detrimental effects of short passing might get some consolation from watching the soccer team in action.

O'Neill's modus operandi can only be justified by good results. Without them the entire enterprise is an empty one. That's why nothing but victory is acceptable against Wales. The absence of Bale and Christian Eriksen for this round of games means O'Neill can never again complain about not getting the breaks.

Tomorrow night offers a magnificent opportunity to silence the doubters. Victory would mean there'd be something to play for in Copenhagen and perhaps even a chance of repeating last year's smash and grab against the Welsh.

Ireland have found home victories hard to come by under O'Neill but up to the 5-1 defeat by Denmark they made life very difficult for visiting sides. A trip to Dublin always constituted a rigorous examination. Saturday was different. The Danes were given room to knock the ball around in comfort while Ireland retreated to defend en masse.

It was the type of display you'd associate with plucky non-league teams in the FA Cup whose lack of adventure is excused on the grounds of their day jobs as glaziers and insurance men. Ireland have no such excuse but their performance on Saturday was an inferiority complex made flesh. The players the home team backed off so they could weave their fearsome continental magic included Huddersfield Town's Mathias Jorgensen, Middlesbrough's Martin Braithwaite and Henrik Dalsgaard of Brentford.

The Danes played what football there was in the game. Ireland relied on defence and the faint hope of a breakaway or perfectly executed set piece. O'Neill's talk of "pockets of possession" was revealing in its gratitude for small mercies though there was something undeniably eye-catching when Ireland strung two or three passes together. The phrase, "What's seldom is wonderful," came to mind.

This Irish team is so enormously unambitious they're like Elon Musk in reverse. Such diffidence will hardly do against Wales, hampered though they'll be by the absence of Bale.

Yet O'Neill should not be written off. In the past he's conjured up unlikely victories when the need was greatest. It's rarely been as great as it is now. This year the reputation of Irish soccer has suffered one blow after another, on and off the field. The feelbad factor is probably at an all-time high. Enough is enough. The fans badly need something to cheer about. Martin O'Neill owes them a big happy home night.

It's time to win or jack it in.

Irish Independent

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