Thursday 22 February 2018

Dion Fanning: Martin O'Neill's ordinary Irish team can't seem to win hearts of public

Without victories against big nations, O'Neill's Irish team seem ordinary and can't win hearts of public

'It was hard to feel the love for the Ireland team last Monday night. In a half-empty stadium, Ireland spent 45 minutes seemingly engaged in an exercise which would demonstrate to those who had bothered to come that they should have found something better to do'
'It was hard to feel the love for the Ireland team last Monday night. In a half-empty stadium, Ireland spent 45 minutes seemingly engaged in an exercise which would demonstrate to those who had bothered to come that they should have found something better to do'

Dion Fanning

Next month, the Ireland team will be loved once more. When Germany play at the Aviva on October 8, there will be a sense of anticipation ahead of the game.

A belief that Ireland can be victorious and a giddiness that anything is possible will be tangible. There will be a feeling that this could be the turning point and the general mood will signify that hope is yet again triumphing over experience.

Maybe next month will be the time when the recent history of Irish football transforms, but there has been no evidence that anything is going to change. On Monday night, Martin O'Neill talked about how his role now is to keep people calm ahead of the hysteria that is to come and what is needed from some of the young players he is introducing into the side.

Watching his team play is less instructive. Ireland are determined to conform to Giovanni Trapattoni's analysis of the side and even O'Neill's introduction of Wes Hoolahan has not been enough to change the fundamental direction of the Irish team.

It was hard to feel the love for the Ireland team last Monday night. In a half-empty stadium, Ireland spent 45 minutes seemingly engaged in an exercise which would demonstrate to those who had bothered to come that they should have found something better to do. In the second half, they lifted their game without providing anything memorable. The game was won and immediately forgotten.

Like so many aspects of O'Neill's reign, that is a problem which predates him. Since they beat Slovakia in March 2007, Ireland have drawn or lost 26 competitive games. In that time, the list of teams they have beaten reads like a guide to the mediocre or the minor of European football. Georgia, defeated four times, Armenia, beaten twice, or Macedonia, also twice, may be the best Ireland have overcome.

They have established some sort of consistency. When they play Sweden or Austria or Scotland or Montenegro, the limit of their achievements appears to be a point. There is something to celebrate when this is achieved somewhere like Moscow and often the point looks good against other teams in the context of the group, but there has been no transformative result, nothing that makes the country look differently at the Irish team.

Ireland may not pick up another point in their qualifying group and still limp into a play-off, guided there by the tailwind after victories against Gibraltar and Georgia. In fact, they might reach next summer's European Championships without another win. The expanded competition will reward mediocrity and Ireland's is so well established now that it would be a shame if they were not at a tournament which promises to be a carnival of ordinariness.

Again, this is nothing new. Ireland qualified for the European Championships in 2012, thanks to victories against Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra before Estonia were beaten in a play-off. There was surprise when Ireland went on to lose to Croatia, Spain and Italy. Ireland won't have as difficult a group if they qualify this time, but the pattern is likely to remain.

Still, Ireland have been more consistent than any other side on these islands with the exception of England over the past 10 years. The Steve Staunton experiment was the only time when Ireland flirted with the same kind of disastrous results experienced by Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland in recent years.

They haven't lost to Macedonia or Montenegro, but they also haven't beaten Belgium, Russia or Spain. Scotland's victory against Ireland last November may yet become a decisive factor in the group.

Those countries are currently higher than Ireland in the FIFA rankings, but perhaps more importantly, they have a different relationship with the public, a relationship defined by the memorable victories the national sides had achieved. Without those moments, Ireland will struggle to be loved. The Ireland team of Mick McCarthy was defined pre-Saipan by the victory against Holland. They also beat Yugoslavia and Croatia during his time.

Like Wales today, Ireland in that era was driven by one great player. Seamus Coleman can't do it from full-back. There may be others who can contribute, but they are unlikely to propel the side in the manner required.

On Monday night, Jeff Hendrick made a decisive contribution. Afterwards, O'Neill spoke of the change in the player since he first went to see him at Derby County. He was one of the players O'Neill knew little about when he took the job and what he first saw was a player taking the "easy" option by getting the ball and returning it to the defenders, not playing on the half-turn as O'Neill believes midfielders should do. Hendrick has developed, O'Neill says, even if the run on Monday night "came out of the blue".

Ireland could do with a little bit more to come out of the blue and Jack Grealish would have offered something different, although that is now an unlikely prospect. O'Neill still spoke positively last week, but it seems a lost cause, no matter how many times his father says no decision has yet been made.

"Eventually you can coerce and try and be on top of something, but what you want is for the young lad to make that decision, not now for the next three or four weeks, but for the rest of his footballing career. That would be important," O'Neill said.

Instead, Ireland will continue to look ordinary and fans now have a relationship with the team which is, for the most part, exactly as it was designed to be. The FAI's ticketing plan for the Aviva Stadium was aimed in part at high net worth individuals who would pay up to €32,000 for their Vantage Club ticket. When the crash came, there were fewer high net worth individuals, but the Irish football supporter has respected the market just as he was supposed to do when it looked as if he could be priced out of it.

Too many people like to blame the public for not buying their book, purchasing their newspaper or supporting their team, but the truth is usually the opposite. Things that are popular aren't necessarily good, but some things are often unpopular for good reason.

Ireland fans in large part now behave like the consumers the FAI defined them as when the Aviva was opened. For many reasons, the supporters have the upper hand. They will go to the games they want to and stay away from the ones they don't. Some are more committed, but they have also experienced the heavy hand of security which is determined to ensure that no protests take place which are directed at the Association or its chief executive.

When an ugly game takes place in front of an apathetic audience in the shiny stadium which was supposed to attract a different kind of crowd, it is hard not to think that this was a match in the image of the modern FAI.

The prospects for the team seem better this weekend, but anybody who is inclined to ignore the fundamental problems essentially because Georgia beat Scotland 10 days ago may need to witness history repeating itself next summer.

Ireland were always going to be marginally better off sticking with O'Neill, no matter what happened over the final games. Equally, the FAI needs fundamental change and nothing that happens in the next two months should alter that.

Perhaps next month, Ireland will finally achieve a victory which shapes them, but it is hard not to think that last Monday's game actually defined this Irish team, and this time in Irish football, quite perfectly. A 1-0 victory over Georgia as O'Neill's side rose without trace into a strong position in the group seemed fitting. If there was a familiar feeling, it was because we have been here so many times before. This was a reminder that experience - even if it is mundane and forgettable - usually outranks hope.


Thursday, Oct 8: Georgia v Gibraltar 5.0; Ireland v Germany 7.45; Scotland v Poland 7.45.

Sunday, Oct 11: (all 7.45) Poland v Ireland; Germany v Georgia; Gibraltar v Scotland.

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