Monday 26 August 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Martin O'Neill got a lot wrong but the truth is we don't have the players to do any better

14 November 2017; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 2nd leg match between Republic of Ireland and Denmark at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
14 November 2017; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 2nd leg match between Republic of Ireland and Denmark at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Tuesday afternoon, and the countdown to kickoff was spent shooting the breeze with a colleague. Talk turned to comparing the past and present and to deciding our greatest manager, in the sort of discussion that never serves a purpose as there's no right answer, but always provides distraction.

Given what a World Cup brings those that make it, even if often immeasurable, that distraction was preferred to the nerves and to contemplating the worst.

It was agreed it was a two-horse race. In terms of Jack Charlton, he gave us a new history as we'd never qualified for anything and that was a huge barrier in itself. In his time it was tougher to get to what were more elite events as well. But then he had the players and it was concluded that going to Russia on the back of last summer, with this team, would put Martin O'Neill up there too.

In the end the Derry man was an hour away from one of the greatest achievements in Irish sport, as far too often we stare down ultimate victory and ignore punching above our weight and exceeding potential if that doesn't bring about the ultimate victory.

But given the depth of football and lack of depth in our football, this could have been in the realms of Pat O'Callaghan and Packie Bonner. Of course 60 minutes is a long time and O'Neill's reputation has been badly battered, but to go from potentially our best ever to many wanting to show him the door is too drastic and it's based on the sort of brutal emotion that dispenses with the reality of our situation.

Indeed when it comes to O'Neill's position and the task facing him, it always brings to mind one of the few amusing scenes from Ted 2 when they go to the improv club to shout out suggestions at those on stage.

"So first we need an historical event, whose got an event?"

"9/11."

"Okay, okay, maybe something else. Alright, let's start with a person?"

"Robin Williams."

"Okay, for real guys, whose got a person?"

"Robin Williams on 9/11."

"Alright we've heard from these guys, let's maybe give somebody else over here a chance. How about a location? Let's go with a location."

"The offices of Charlie Hebdo."

"Okay, seriously sir, I just need a location."

"Ferguson, Missouri... German Wings cockpit."

"Okay I heard Starbucks."

"No you didn't... Nobody said Starbucks."

"Alright, Starbucks. Now whose in the Starbucks."

"Bill Cosby."

"You people are monsters."

"We're giving you the tools buddy, come on, make some f**king comedy."

That's the equivalent of O'Neill's hand and he's expected to make some football on the way to making it to a World Cup. Ask yourself though, who is the best player he has at his disposal? With all the talk of Wes Hoolahan this campaign, you'd guess he's the popular answer but if that's the case then our best player is a 35-year-old with a mid-table Championship club.

Perhaps then we are the ones who are wrong when it comes to our demands.

Gary Breen was excellent in his analysis of the 5-1 thrashing but was off when saying, "Don't tell us we haven't got the players; we have and they could do so much more". Do we and could they? Doubtful, even in an era of international football where so much is average and organisation goes a long way. That organisation did, after all, get us a long way - to the point where more is needed.

O'Neill got a lot wrong and that has been highlighted. Danish coach Age Hareide noted: "Ireland played with a diamond midfield, which gave Christian Eriksen a lot of space. So thank you very much Ireland."

James McClean was out of position. Hoolahan coming into a team that had just had it's defensive midfield removed at the half was dangerous at best. Aiden McGeady coming into any team trying to achieve at this standard is seppuku. The defensive set-pieces again looked as if they hadn't been coached around the basics.

But, ultimately, the difference between Ireland and Denmark wasn't selection or tactics or even the individual errors that saw a lead becoming a deficit so quickly. It was Eriksen, the one truly world-class player on the pitch, the type we don't produce and simply cannot handle.

As O'Neill put it in a line that got overlooked as part of a heated interview afterwards: "We are playing against sides of superior quality usually." Thus, that we keep bringing knives to gun fights and weren't taken down until this stage of the qualifying process is worthy of some praise.

Go through the team and their level and compare that to their efforts in getting so close. From Darren Randolph in goal (he had to drop out of the Premier League to get game time but has regularly looked Premier League quality when playing internationally) to Daryl Murphy leading the line (he's 34 and playing with an average tier-two team but is as good as we have in terms of striking options), why should these guys be expected to finish ahead of Wales or Austria or lead a play-off with Denmark two-thirds of the way in? Perhaps James McClean is the best microcosm of our over-achievement as he never let his own limitations stop him from a stellar campaign.

You make the most of what you have, but that again needs to be looked at in terms of our structures, not in terms of one team of run-of-the-mill players who are partly a product of those structures. That's the one good thing that ought to come from this if people step back and direct their ire and energy at the only fix, rather than the rouse of a quick-fix via a managerial debate.

What we are doing isn't working from top down and bottom up, with the senior team and O'Neill merely caught in the middle. Within the last decade alone we've had John Delaney giving a clear and important mandate to introduce a pyramid structure within Irish soccer only for the first comment at that in-camera meeting to be, "Why bother? It's a political nightmare".

And we've had Wim Koevermans after his appointment to International Performance Director – a role Delaney described as amongst the most significant moves in the history of Irish soccer – going to a meeting of the Schoolboy Football Association of Ireland to discuss the recommendations from an underage review. Yet when a person noted, "They're the kind of the things the Spanish and Germans have been doing for years," a senior SFAI figure retorted, "What the f**k would they know about Irish football?"

That's the attitude. Change is needed badly, and needed and quick.

Is it any wonder then that Seamus Coleman progressed largely outside our system while McClean, McGeady, Harry Arter, James McCarthy, Cyrus Christie and Shane Duffy progressed outside our jurisdiction?

Is it any wonder either that we've qualified for just three of the 16 European Under-17 Championships, two of the 16 European Under-19 Championships, and none of the 21 European Under-21 Championships. There's an argument to be made that it is getting better at underage, but there's a counter-argument that better is easy when you've been terrible.

Of course Delaney and the FAI get the blame, but there's plenty to go around and we need to look at ourselves in this too. The Belgian model is often pointed to, yet delve into what they did as they scientifically went about reforming their football by shrinking underage games, focusing on touch rather than goals, stressing improvement rather than victory.

Now imagine trying to induce such a selfless attitude here, of putting instant triumph aside for a greater good where all eyes are focused on creating the best adult possible. Instead we've a cultural need to be congratulated regardless of how local and regardless of how young as we live for today, with tomorrow someone else's lot.

It means that if the national team is an expression of that notion, then our lot right now is fitting. And it means that if David Meyler was arrogant before the result in talking big to the point of inspiring the opposition, we are arrogant in thinking we've any right to be at a World Cup.

Tuesday night and the discussion have moved on, but sadly it has stuck on O'Neill, what he offers, the pay of the job, who could replace him and if they should. But regardless of who leads Ireland into the next qualifying campaign, they'll still be reaping what our football culture is still sadly sowing.

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