Monday 17 June 2019

Comment: Welsh humiliation followed on from a period of unnecessary fallouts and player rejections


Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, left, and Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, left, and Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Colin Young

It is almost five years, 1,756 days to be precise, since Martin O'Neill took Ireland to Poland for his first away game in charge of the team. And some things have not changed. He is still defending the behaviour of his assistant manager and he still doesn't have any strikers.

A week after his appointment as the successor to Giovanni Trapattoni, and the approach to Roy Keane to be his deputy, O'Neill took charge of Ireland for the first time at the Aviva and they beat Latvia 3-0 in an international friendly. Four days later, they travelled to Poznan. Paul Green, Anthony Stokes and Marc Wilson all started in a drab goalless draw. Ireland would eventually miss out on automatic qualification to the finals in Brazil.

A year ago Ireland could and should have been top of their World Cup qualifying group and ready to start contemplating a summer with the best in the world in Russia. They blew it with a dreadful draw in Georgia, followed days later by a home defeat to eventual group winners Serbia, who would be beaten to the last 16 of the finals by Brazil and Switzerland. Ireland have been unravelling over the last 12 months.

On Tuesday, O'Neill, Keane and Ireland will return to Poland, this time with far fewer travelling fans than whose who charmed the Polish public in the Euro Finals in the summer of 2012. They have a considerably weaker squad too. Retirements, rejections and unreasonable behaviour may have stretched the panel as far as O'Neill can take it.

"When I came in I had an old Robbie Keane who wasn't able to play against the big sides the way he did, the way he would have done," said O'Neill last week. "In my five years here, I've lacked a goal-scoring centre-forward. And that does become a bit of a problem.

"When you've got someone like Gareth Bale, who can turn a game in a moment, it does help. However, we don't have a Gareth Bale in our midst so we have to try and do other things. Remarkably, the players coming through is actually outside my control, believe it or not. It's outside my control. I can't do anything about that."

Martin O'Neill is the manager who thought he could tame Roy Keane. And Keane convinced O'Neill to turn down Stoke City because he said they could qualify for the European Championship finals again and enjoy the 2020 jamboree in Dublin. But that's not looking good either.

Suddenly, the Nations League matters. O'Neill's attitude to the competition had been the subject of long debate and ridicule throughout an entire programme on BBC Five Live, after admitting he didn't really understand the rules, or its significance. Turns out, he wasn't the only one, and only their football correspondent Ian Dennis delivered some sense eventually.

UEFA have spent years of planning a way to get rid of meaningless friendlies, Dennis explained. The Nations League, with its promotion and relegation, will replace them. It's complicated, but the rewards aren't bad and every game will definitely count in the future.

The entire Ireland camp on Thursday was in friendly mode. It may have been a far cry from the cauldron which greeted the sides before the World Cup qualifier last October, but Wales under Ryan Giggs gave a very different performance. This is a new era for Welsh football and the fans and Giggs embraced it, emboldened by the presence of Bale and the youth, skill and arrogance in David Brooks and Ethan Ampadu.

Harry Arter is refusing to play for Ireland thanks to a stand-up row with the assistant manager. But O'Neill continues to defend his number two and his confrontational attitude to a role which is normally played by a supportive, approachable conduit between players and managers. It is the manager who is the peacemaker in this relationship, but then it was always going to be different.

When he took over in November 2013, O'Neill immediately appointed one of the most divisive characters in Irish football. And Roy Keane is, of course, unique. O'Neill knew what he was taking on. And, at the same time, he had absolutely no idea.

As they displayed on ITV, when kept apart, in their 'What if . . . ' World Cup appearances in Russia in June, the pair share a sceptical view of the modern game and an ability to admire and scorn in the same breath, often in captivating language and facial expression. They can both spread a thousand doubts in a second's stare.

Like good workplace acquaintances, the manager and his assistant enjoy each other's company during the international get-togethers and on the occasions they may meet at functions or matches.

"Roy Keane, over my five years here, has been incredibly positive about the team," said O'Neill. "Incredibly so. Players have to listen as well, too, you know. He is another who commands respect and players listen to him as well. You can have altercation, argument, tough words said. I think you can put that behind you. Jon Walters certainly did.

"Obviously I haven't managed at league level for five years now, but you think the changes (in players) are slight and then they become more pronounced. Players mostly cannot deal with scenarios that we would have been forced to deal with in our time as players, with younger players getting a lot of things quite early in their career.

"When Roy was at United he dished out rollickings to everyone around him, he was Alex Ferguson's man on the pitch. I've seen it, I was Leicester manager at Filbert Street and he was at top players like Gary Neville inside five minutes, he drove them on, it depends how you react to it. I think the players would have accepted it because he was driving them on to championships.

"Sometimes players who are not so extroverted, like say Paul Scholes, would take it on board as he chased titles, but I've appreciated Roy's role with us. Sometimes he does give out rollickings and there have been times when he's come to me and said 'I went overboard there, I'll have a word with the lad', and he does.

"And sometimes it comes down to the player involved. Jon Walters was involved in that business earlier in the year but he's with us this week. Of course Jon is well able to give back as good as he gets from anyone."

On Thursday, the headless chicken approach to dealing with one of the best midfielders in world football, and his competent and compliant supporting cast, unravelled again in Cardiff. Just as Christian Eriksen was granted the freedom of Dublin last year, so was Gareth Bale on his home turf.

Hampered enough by the gulf in class between themselves and Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey, David Brooks and even Chelsea youngster Ampadu, Ireland's midfielders were handed roles alien to them and played like strangers. Wales kept the ball, Bale roamed freely and his team-mates did the same.

Jon Walters, whose 34-year-old legs preclude him from travelling to Wroclaw for Tuesday's match - rather than any disagreement with Keane - emphasised the importance of this latest trip to Poland, who also made the finals in Russia but finished bottom of their group behind Colombia, Japan and Senegal.

The defeat in Cardiff hit the players hard and Walters was one of the few to speak afterwards. He looked shellshocked.

"We've had one or two like that before, but the Wales game was just not good enough," admitted Walters. "We've pride in our shirt, but that was not acceptable. There's no hiding from it. After a game like that there weren't many words said in the dressing room, there was no need. We all know what we have done.

"There was no roaring and shouting. Every man in there just knew it wasn't good enough, everyone has to look into their heart. I've known great highs in football and I've known the lows too, and this is as low as it gets. Poland is important now, but the real matches are in Dublin next month. We've got to put on a performance there, for ourselves and for our supporters. It has to be different in those two games."

Walters should be back for the October matches, with valuable minutes in the shirt of Ipswich Town to his credit. O'Neill hopes to have Shane Long, James McClean, Robbie Brady and perhaps even James McCarthy available for selection.

As for Rice and Arter, we'll just have to wait and see .

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