Sunday 16 June 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Five great nights undone by 5-1 defeat'

Ireland learned to win again under O'Neill but the magic faded and there was no way back after humbling play-off loss, says Daniel McDonnell

Martin O’Neill reacts during the crushing defeat against Denmark. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill reacts during the crushing defeat against Denmark. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Martin O'Neill delivered five of the best nights in recent Irish football history. But he was undone by the five goals conceded on one of the worst.

The sadness about the conclusion of O'Neill's tenure is that the better days have already faded long into the memory. A steady descent from the play-off defeat to Denmark last November has emptied the credit that was in the bank. That shouldn't be forgotten today.

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It is worth remembering that the first phase of the O'Neill era succeeded in getting the Irish football team back into the habit of winning big matches again after over a decade where the peaks consisted of glorious draws.

The noteworthy victories easily trip off the tongue and evoke the images.

Shane Long's wonder strike to down Germany. Jon Walters rocking the Aviva to make the Euros at Bosnia's expense. Robbie Brady's header and passionate celebrations in Lille to extend that French adventure.

James McClean's crisp strikes in Vienna and Cardiff clinched two of the best ever Irish away qualifying results, even though the Welsh win was so backs to the wall that it was essentially a sign of what was to come - minus the inspiration to see it out.

Celebrating at the final whistle of the victory over Germany. Photo: Sportsfile
Celebrating at the final whistle of the victory over Germany. Photo: Sportsfile

Exposed

The fatigue was evident within a month and the Danish drubbing that kicked off the road to the exit door via a flirtation with Stoke that exposed the public's growing indifference to his position. The last year was a struggle, and the strain was evident as every new game suggested that the manager was out of answers.

Ireland might have been difficult to beat again - although that's debatable given that Denmark were nowhere near full strength in either of their scoreless draws - but they had never been as difficult to watch. It's France that would make the front cover in any photo album of O'Neill's achievements.

He was hired in November 2013 to ensure Ireland qualified for the first ever 24-team European Championship and succeeded in doing so after a bumpy road that risked a nightmare end to the 'dream team' experiment consisting of the Derryman and his assistant Roy Keane.

Saluting the crowd after the Euro 2016 win over Italy. Photo: Sportsfile
Saluting the crowd after the Euro 2016 win over Italy. Photo: Sportsfile

That journey set the tone for the front-of-house response to scrutiny, with O'Neill's team producing their best when they found themselves on the ropes and delighting in reminding people of that.

This reporter did get the chance to encounter O'Neill away from the Irish working environment - he made himself available to speak at the World Cups in Brazil and Russia.

He was open and engaging, intelligent and quick-witted. A family man who was very relaxed and comfortable discussing any topic once the dictaphones were off.

In Brazil, he accepted an offer from an Irishman working there to visit a favela where community workers were doing their best to use football as a means of combating social problems arising from extreme poverty.

A falling out between Roy Keane and Harry Arter was revealed on WhatsApp. Photo: Sportsfile
A falling out between Roy Keane and Harry Arter was revealed on WhatsApp. Photo: Sportsfile

O'Neill spent the day with the locally-based guide and two Irish journalists - myself and another colleague - and was so moved by what he encountered that he subsequently made a personal donation towards the project without seeking publicity.

His style of football and pride-based references to his own achievements built the argument that he was aloof and out of touch, but there's a danger in confusing an attitude to work with an individual's human qualities. Press conference interactions do not really reveal a person's true character; it just displays how they respond to a certain type of scrutiny.

The warmer side of his personality seldom came across on camera, particularly the post-match TV interviews after deflating results where he struggled to disguise his disdain.

The 66-year-old always felt he was working with a limited hand and contrasted the English view of his work - which honed in on the profile of his squad and little else - with the Irish angle that was more centred on his team's style of play.

He enjoyed the feeling of vindication when they got to the Euros.

But there was still an element of trepidation heading to France because of just how poorly Ireland had performed on that stage in Poland four years earlier. Similar to Trapattoni, O'Neill pitched up with the oldest squad in the competition - a consequence of the slow production line which wasn't his fault.

Yet Ireland managed to do enough in the competition to really give the travelling fans some happy memories.

In a tournament setting, O'Neill was comfortable, getting the work and rest balance correct in the build-up; that was Trapattoni's undoing. There were no murmurs about an unhappy camp, even though Keane had publicly lambasted underperforming players after a dreadful showing in a warm-up friendly with Belarus.

Ireland's subsequent World Cup draw was kind, although the Derryman argued that his team had overperformed as they were the only fourth seed to make a play-off. In the Euro 2016 tilt, they were actually second seeds that finished third.

But the Russia campaign was a slog, and home performances did not set the pulse racing. When Denmark came out of the pot as a play-off opponent, O'Neill was irked by the suggestion that he was a lucky manager.

Yet the stakes were so high for the Dublin decider with Denmark that the outcome was always going to draw an emotive response.

The scale of the defeat was devastating, though, particularly as it stained the reputation of a side that was supposed to overcome its limitations by being sturdy and well organised.

O'Neill was shocked by the reaction, but a 5-1 home defeat comes with an inevitable backlash, especially when the only justification for the team's brand of football was the bottom line.

And, in the manager's defence, that was the brief he was given. They needed to get to Euro 2016 by whatever means possible due to the importance of major tournament revenue. It didn't matter if the agricultural fare was setting a dubious example for age group teams that were doing things in another way.

But in the 5-1 thrashing, there was no coherent Plan B to respond to the changing circumstances. Ireland lost the plot. One player told friends after the game that they didn't even know what position they were supposed to be operating in for the second half.

This was the other side of the O'Neill era. Any grumbles that leaked out about the boss were related to concerns about preparation. He operated off instinct, leaving it to the last possible moment before outlining his starting XI. Basically, he trusted players to work it out, when so many modern footballers are used to club environments where every detail of a strategy is laid out for them.

Sometimes it worked. The radical changes before the victory over Italy in Lille freshened things up and a liberated group went from there to do the business; in the early days O'Neill also made a number of clever substitutions within matches that yielded a large number of significant late goals. The flip side of that is that the slow starts arose from the absence of a clearly-defined game-plan.

That was the fear about this group's evolution. French stars Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick came to the fore under O'Neill. However, they have struggled with seniority and the argument which gives them a pass is that management never really found a way to accommodate them. Hendrick has looked lost in a variety of roles.

O'Neill and Keane will doubtless argue that the players have to take responsibility for below-par showings. The concern when the Corkman was brought in as number two was that he would turn out to be a combustible presence. That opening-day O'Neill quip about 'bad cop and bad, bad cop' was prescient in the end.

Stephen Ward's leaked WhatsApp message arising from Keane's attack on Harry Arter shone a light on the mood inside the camp. The most damaging part of it was Ward's tone; it tied in with the belief that the squad actually weren't that shocked by the number two's outburst.

They had essentially heard it all before. O'Neill often alluded to the limitations of the Irish panel and Keane found it harder to disguise his views; players were tired of reading that their limitations were the problem.

That wore down morale, and it wasn't conducive to a positive atmosphere. Earlier this week, O'Neill confirmed the departure of coach Steve Walford due to "personal reasons". It's believed that Walford didn't especially enjoy working with Keane.

Like Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli before him, this management team will exit the post by stressing that it will be difficult to find anyone capable of delivering a greater level of success with the resources at their disposal.

They might be right, but the FAI authorities realised that they needed to try and find out with Euro 2020 qualification in jeopardy and the public beaten into indifference by the complete absence of entertainment.

A good portion of travelling support in Aarhus on Monday spent most of their time singing about John Delaney and the FAI. There were similar vibes towards the end of the Steve Staunton era. The manager went. The board stayed. Same as it ever was.

The top brass will struggle to deliver a higher profile ticket, so it's the football solution that will have to capture the imagination now. Marquee managers have been used to sell the Irish game, but it's the show that really matters.

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