Comment - The reality is that Ireland's players need a more modern long-term approach
In the end, the Denmark players were actually proved wrong. They didn’t just beat Ireland, as some of their squad had been so assuredly telling club team-mates in the build-up to their World Cup play-off; they absolutely humiliated them 5-1, proving they were a considerably better team.
All of the fanciful Irish notions about having more fight than the Danes were reduced to nothing. As one figure close to the Denmark camp told the Independent, “it was not a surprise to us that Ireland could not play football”.
What did surprise them was just how easy this supposed team of fighters made it for them.
“Ireland played with a diamond midfield, which gave Christian Eriksen a lot of space,” Aage Hareide said, before layering on a lot of sarcasm. “So thank you very much Ireland.”
Given how much had been made of Hareide’s previous landlord-lodger relationship with Irish manager Martin O’Neill, it felt rather pointed, and all of this raised a rather important point about Ireland and the very expectations and ambitions a mid-sized country should have.
Was O’Neill any way culpable for this atrocious Irish collapse - that was one of the worst football nights in the country’s history - or does he deserve praise for getting them so far with a squad that is very far from the best in the country’s history?
There are some football figures who know the manager from his time in the Premier League who simply can’t believe he is being questioned, but any fair responses to those questions have a lot of complicating factors.
It should first of all be acknowledged that, when you bring it down to the barest of facts, O’Neill’s reign has been a qualified success.
He got Ireland to just their sixth-ever tournament at Euro 2016, something that will in time make him one of the country’s celebrated football figures.
Had he followed it with what would have been just Ireland’s second-ever double qualification by making the 2018 World Cup, too, and with a side far weaker in talent than that which did it first in 1988-90, he would have had a fair argument to be the nation’s greatest ever manager - even greater than Jack Charlton.
O’Neill didn’t actually achieve it, though. A manager whose pragmatic approach has ensured he is to be entirely judged by results that didn’t get the required result. He instead presided over what was one of the worst embarrassments in Irish history.
And the crux and contradiction is that the very managerial decisions that got Ireland so far also saw them so badly beaten.
As with Giovanni Trapattoni’s heavy defeats to Croatia, Spain and Germany, this was the inevitable flipside of his inherently reactionary approach, the risk of such reductionist football.
It did say much that, when you asked any Irish player what exactly it is that O’Neill does, they couldn’t really say much. They don’t work on shape, and most of the manager’s approach seemingly boils down to the edge he keeps them on by not saying much in between games and then whipping the team up into a fervour before games.
As we have seen in the more disparate world of international football, old-fashioned emotion-based motivation - and the club-level cohesion it can create in terms of spirit - can have a powerful effect. This is a great quality. It has also has a finite point, as was proven against Denmark. This is a potential great weakness.
It just so often felt as if O’Neill was playing a bit of roulette with the team, disproportionately conditioned by the good luck of Germany missing so many chances in that win in the Euro qualifiers or Scotland just missing their opportunity, or the bad luck of Cyrus Christie diverting the ball into his own goal on Tuesday.
It is a shapeless approach thereby inherently prone to either massive progress like in the Euros or painful collapses as in these play-offs - or just mostly dull displays.
His capacity for surprises in selection will naturally bring sudden and abrupt jumps in either direction.
Take the last few months alone.
First of all, a player like David Meyler has gone from a squad player to the captain, to the captain that was hauled off at half-time against Denmark.
That call at half-time seemed a panicked reaction, not exactly befitting FAI CEO John Delaney’s pre-game description of “one of the most astute coaches in Europe”. The pattern was set for Eriksen to run the game.
Just as problematic, though, was the tone set. Captain Meyler’s pre-game comments that Ireland just had more heart than the Danes, and that’s why they would qualify, are known to have greatly irritated Hareide’s side - and greatly motivated them. It was clumsy and poor leadership, and that ultimately comes down on O’Neill since he picked Meyler as captain.
You could say such constant reshuffling is because Ireland do not have an obvious best team because they do not have obviously good players, but that is hugely simplistic.
The fact is that, with a core of players playing in one of Europe’s top leagues, the Irish have a squad that is of similar profile of most mid-level sides. There are usually at least five sides of similar make-up, and many of them European, at every World Cup. Sweden, Iceland and Switzerland fit that profile for 2018.
O’Neill’s solution to the challenge of sorting the team he was presented with was always the most short-term possible. Rather than instilling the side with a deeper identity and getting them to understand a shape and plan in the way that Hareide has done - the Danish players literally learning the runs they should make off Eriksen - O’Neill changed up from game to game.
It was undeniably effective but when this is so affected by motivation and emotion and the idea the team has a unique unbreakable spirit, there is the big potential danger that it just won’t have the same effect after a humiliating defeat like that. That its main powering factors will be broken.
There’s also the possibility that O’Neill’s stratagem might just have run its course in the way that short-term approaches eventually do. It’s hard to escape the feeling we’re at the point that Trapattoni’s management was in Euro 2012, where what was once good just stopped working.
The defeat by Denmark actually exposed the disturbing reality that Ireland have more profound problems than their choice of manager. They require a deep look at what the future holds, the players they’re producing. It doesn’t preclude the reality that the current players could maybe do with a more modern long-term approach now, too - something a bit more structured and modern.
Independent News Service