Comment - Have we just witnessed the beginning of the end of Martin O'Neill's reign as Ireland manager?
As a composed Martin O’Neill strode into the press room to face his inquisitors at the Aviva Stadium, he knew the post-mortems over his doomed World Cup qualifying campaign were already being penned.
An improved performance against Serbia in a Group D qualifier counted for nothing in the final analysis of a cruel 1-0 defeat, with the under-current of dissent that has been growing against a manager whose ugly post-match interview in Georgia on Saturday may now begin to spill over.
There are still two games of this qualifying campaign to play and wins against Moldova and Wales could inspire a miracle revival for Ireland, but this night in front of a raucous crowd at the Aviva Stadium felt like the end of more than just a World Cup dream for Ireland.
This could have been the beginning of the end of the O’Neill era as Ireland manager and the first question in his press conference summed up the kind of question he may be asked to fend off as he heads into what may be his final month as Ireland boss.
The opening question of his press conference could not have been more blunt; have you blown it Martin?
It was a forthright and direct start to proceedings, with O’Neill offering up a far more eloquent response that he managed in his infamous RTE interview in Tbilisi last weekend.
“Absolutely not, we have a chance. This is not big words. I think we can win both of our last two games and that is what we have to do,” declared O’Neill.
“I thought the players were fantastic tonight. They gave every ounce for the shirt and if we had got the equaliser, it would have been the least we deserved.
“We got the ball down well, they didn’t give us much trouble, but top class players operating in the top leagues in the world can punish you when you give them some space and that is what happened on their winning goal.
“Yet this is not over, not at all. If you said to me we need to win the last two games, one at home (against Moldova) and one away against Wales in Cardiff, I would have taken that. Well, we are in that position now.”
O’Neill went on to lament his side’s lack of scoring power, how he wished Robbie Keane ten years younger and bemoaned the prospect of his injured skipper Seamus Coleman potentially missing out on an appearance in a World Cup that would have been a glittering reward for his eagerness to battle back to full fitness after his double leg break against Wales in March.
O’Neill’s words were laced with the reality that his Ireland story may soon be over, even if he could offer an upbeat assessment of a display that was much-improved from the misery of the 1-1 draw against Georgia at the weekend.
The underlying issues surrounding the lack of organisation on and off the pitch in the O’Neill era will be considered when the future of this experienced tactical and his celebrity assistant Roy Keane is considered in the coming weeks, but you wonder whether the FAI will have the final say on the future of this experienced operator.
It must be doubtful whether O’Neill will want to continue working with an ageing Irish squad that will not get any better heading into the Euro 2020 qualifiers, but that debate is for another day.
This night was all about coming to terms with the demise of a World Cup fantasy that has been burning brighter than ever since the fine 1-0 win in Austria last November.
It is hard to believe another manager would do any better with this limited group of players, but you wonder whether what looks set to be failure in his first attempt to lead Ireland into a World Cup finals will mark the end of his reign in this increasingly challenging job.