Friday 20 September 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Ireland fear factor driving strange kind of apathy'

O'Neill's side are stuck in a cycle of negativity that reflects staleness in Irish football's corridors of power

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Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There was a time when teams were afraid of playing Ireland. Now, they talk about the fear which is running through the Irish ranks.

Christian Eriksen's damning words on Monday night shone a light on what the opposition think about Martin O'Neill's side right now. His observation that the visitors were "too scared" to attack in Aarhus paints a fairly bleak picture.

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Maybe it's his fault. Eriksen's destruction of Ireland in Dublin last year created scars which have not healed. September's thrashing in Cardiff added to that.

O'Neill was unhappy when the two heavy defeats were lumped together in lines about a once-sturdy Irish side leaking nine goals in their most recent competitive outings.

That has been addressed by a particularly deflating brand of negativity. Ireland have conceded just once in the three meaningful matches since then. But they have done so by packing their own half at the expense of any ambition going the other way.

Across the four Nations League matches, they have registered a total of just eight shots on target and Shaun Williams' consolation goal in Cardiff arose from Aaron Ramsey's ill-timed showboating with his team four goals up.

John Delaney. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
John Delaney. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

O'Neill has spoken consistently about improving Ireland's attacking play, but there is no sign that the message is hitting home.

In a post-match huddle after Monday's dull affair, he acknowledged that he is weighing up the question of risk versus reward when it comes to sorting it out. Put simply, he feels he might jeopardise defensive solidity by taking a bolder approach.

"That is a very good point," he said. "That's something we need to seriously have a look at.

"We conceded (the nine goals) in two consecutive competitive games, although they were a bit of a distance apart. Four and five.

"The goals we've conceded was a late one against Poland (in the September friendly) and a very decent free-kick against Wales. So we're trying to get that part right.

"The other part is one that is definitely difficult to do because we need more creativity in the side."

We've heard this all before, of course. Each one of the four UEFA Nations League games this autumn has been followed by a lengthy post-mortem.

There's a repetition about the criticisms; the formation might have changed but the pattern of games has remained the same.

No control of the ball. No coherent strategy in terms of pressing the opponent (a key element of the big victory over Bosnia that secured Euro 2016 qualification). The curious inclusion of Cyrus Christie as a central midfielder, which he continues to stand over.

O'Neill is a man of strong conviction and this is his way of doing things. He's not going to change his philosophy overnight.

The FAI knew that when they gave him the contract extension off the back of a World Cup campaign which trailed off from a promising start; a backs-to-the-wall display in Cardiff masked deficiencies.


He is working with a limited squad, yet it increasingly looks they would benefit from a fresh voice. A strange kind of apathy is setting in.

Packaging 2019 as an attractive proposition for paying customers is going to be a struggle; a glamorous qualifying draw might help but glamour probably equals a tough draw and the FAI could do without that.

This why the focus goes beyond O'Neill. His contractual situation is the main obstacle to change now, a situation created by an FAI hierarchy with a track record of getting these things spectacularly wrong.

They are not held to account for their mistakes; their positions have remained secure through a 13-year cycle where the Irish gig has become one of the best-paid managerial jobs in international football.

This has coincided with a steady regression with the bounce from new managers eventually fading over time; they invariably end up getting one contract too many.

John Delaney's future is decided by a board that he effectively presides over in his position as CEO. Liam Brady, a former assistant to Giovanni Trapattoni, claimed last week that it's Delaney who makes all the decisions.

The absence of rotation around the boardroom table is a shameful indictment of a tired regime; the tweaking of the association's rules means that honorary secretary Michael Cody and honorary treasurer Eddie Murray can stay on for long as they like if nobody opts to stand against them.

And the evidence of the past decade would suggest that the days of elected positions being contested are in the past.

Football is the biggest participation sport in the country, yet the major calls are made by a privileged few.

In Aarhus, a flag making a statement about Delaney's attitude to the League of Ireland was confiscated by local stewards as Irish fans entered the stadium. The genesis of that decision ended up as a talking point on 'Liveline' yesterday.

A portion of the travelling support spent the majority of the match singing unflattering songs about the chief executive. This is where we are. Toxicity has become the default setting.

O'Neill is the front-of-house representative, and he did make efforts this year to improve media relations and adopt a more positive tone in response to the tetchiness that surrounded his dalliance with Stoke.

But the gloomy run of results is making it difficult to present a cheery demeanour, especially as he feels a lot of the flak is unfair.

"You're gathered around here, you've been critical of me now for - if I look at it - probably since the Scotland game when we drew with them in 2015. So it's been continuous," said O'Neill, addressing a group reporters in a huddle after his post-match press conference in Denmark.

One hack replied by stating that the team and manager had received positive coverage in the intervening period. O'Neill disputed that.

"It's true. I read the things," he continued. "At the end of the day, it's been pretty strong. But, listen, I'm in a business where criticism is part of the game. And it's not just part of the game; it's a very strong part of the game. And you have to deal with that."

What happens now? There has been chatter about O'Neill's position over the last week, some of which could quite literally be described as pub talk.

The manager was more subdued than he was after the October double-header when he declared that Ireland would qualify for Euro 2020.


O'Neill did look ahead to the future during his ruminations. He spoke of his concerns about Seán Maguire's hamstring problems, and suggested that Jeff Hendrick's longer-term role might be as a sitting midfielder. James McCarthy will return from injury.

Declan Rice's international allegiance has to be resolved; Ireland have not given up hope. He is perhaps the one person with the power to lift the mood.

"I think you're always looking to see what you can improve on," said O'Neill. "I've always done this as a player; I'm the first one to look and see what we can do and see if there's something we can actually change to make it better."

His employers may well be asking themselves the same question.

Irish Independent

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