Saturday 21 September 2019

Luke Edwards: 'O'Neill will not admit it yet, but there will eventually be a sense of relief'

The end always looks ruthless and ugly, the kill swift, but Martin O'Neill's departure as Republic of Ireland manager was not a sudden decision, it had been coming for months. Photo: Sportsfile
The end always looks ruthless and ugly, the kill swift, but Martin O'Neill's departure as Republic of Ireland manager was not a sudden decision, it had been coming for months. Photo: Sportsfile

Luke Edwards

The end always looks ruthless and ugly, the kill swift, but Martin O'Neill's departure as Republic of Ireland manager was not a sudden decision, it had been coming for months.

Ever since Ireland lost the lead at home to Denmark in a World Cup qualification play-off in Dublin last November and were thrashed 5-1, he has been meandering his way towards the exit door. The announcement yesterday morning that he had agreed with the Football Association of Ireland to step down - a polite way to say he had been forced to leave - was just the final shove through it.

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If he had been allowed to carry on, O'Neill would have rolled up his sleeves and tried to make the best out of a bad situation. He would have done all he could to ensure Ireland qualified for the European Championships in 2020, but he has been a man swimming against the tide of public opinion with weights around wrists and ankles.

It has drained him. The worst thing you can say about the Ireland in the last few months, given the man in charge, is that they were no longer playing like a Martin O'Neill team.

Stubborn There was no bravery on the ball, no pace, no drive, no determination. There were no goals, no flair, no excitement. All that was left was a stubborn refusal to concede, a defensive resilience, that even when everything else deserted them, remained ingrained in the players.

It is no coincidence that virtually all the Premier League players in Ireland's squad are defenders. That is where their qualities lie. They do not have a creative player and they do not have a goalscorer playing at the top level. That can turn a difficult job into an almost impossible one. Whoever replaces him will learn that quickly.

Even so, Ireland still finished second in their World Cup group and had it not been for a winning goal, incorrectly ruled out against Austria, they would have qualified automatically ahead of Serbia. Thin lines, fine margins, ifs, buts and maybes. The road to every managerial departure is paved with them.

He will not admit it yet, but there will eventually be a sense of relief. O'Neill had done all he could. He had consistently got more out of a group of players than he should, but when Northern Ireland were doing the same under his namesake Michael O'Neill and Wales reached a semi-final of the European Championships, that can be more conveniently ignored by your critics.

The idea that O'Neill, certainly for the first four years in the role, over-achieved is not a popular view in Ireland, but when you do not have any creativity in your attacking play and when you have not got anyone capable of scoring goals regularly - regardless of the level you manage at - you are doomed to fail.

The calls for his removal had grown louder during a miserable 2018, although they stopped short of supporters calling for his head at matches. Ireland have not scored a goal for over five hours and not won a competitive game in this calendar year. That is damning, no matter how strongly you argue for mitigation.

But what changed was the stance of the FAI and, most pertinently, chief executive John Delaney. Rather than turn their frustration on O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane, Irish supporters began to chant about Delaney and the failures of the organisation he governs to advance the game. Abusive banners were also confiscated during Monday's goalless draw in Denmark.

As soon as the FAI were in the firing line, O'Neill became a human shield, collateral damage in Delaney's own survival mission. Get rid of the manager and things might die down. A new manager brings fresh ideas, the perception things have changed and hope of a new era dawning.

This is nothing new in football, but the animosity towards Delaney and the FAI is long-standing. O'Neill's success strengthened them while it lasted, but as soon as that stopped, they looked vulnerable again and have acted accordingly.

Eventually, O'Neill can look back on his time with Ireland with some pride. The qualification for the Euros in 2016, the win over Germany in Dublin, the play-off victory over Bosnia, the win over Italy in their final group game that booked their place in the knockout stage, are thrilling moments in Irish football history.

Ireland never lived up to those magical nights again, but it would be harsh to say the 66-year-old failed. Things fizzled out, his pool of players dwindled in quality and the magic died. The players may not have stopped listening, but they were no longer responding in the same way.

If he made one mistake, it was that O'Neill kept reminding everyone of his team's limitations to the point where even they must have started to believe they were not good enough.

O'Neill has not been short of job offers during his time with Ireland. It is safe to assume he will be back in management at some point, but when the dust settles, it is probably the right time for him to go.

Telegraph.co.uk

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