O'Neill and Keane have managed to make Irish soccer team irrelevant
When the national football team was thrashed by Denmark last November, it was facing into a year of almost unprecedented irrelevance.
Not alone would Ireland not be going to the World Cup in Russia, but there wouldn't be a properly competitive game either. Drastic scheduling changes by UEFA meant the qualifying rounds for Euro 2020 wouldn't begin until March 2019; 2018 therefore would be a wilderness year for a team that was already drifting away from the centre of public attention.
The 5-1 drubbing by Denmark in Lansdowne Road brought a wrecking ball to the team's standing in Irish life. After Euro 2016 they had a generous store of warmth and goodwill accumulated in the bank. And even as it dwindled from the sheer mediocrity of the World Cup qualifying campaign over the next two years, their bloody-minded competitive streak meant people still allowed them a sort of grudging respect.
But that wretched night in November left them bankrupt. It instantly went down as one of the most abject performances in Irish football history. Anyone still in denial about the primitive quality of the team could deny it no longer. In many ways, it was a relief that they'd been found out at this juncture, if only because they could end up embarrassing us if somehow they made it to Russia. Almost overnight, the national team became irrelevant in the sporting consciousness. Even if the players and management wanted a shot at redemption in 2018, they wouldn't be getting it. The year ahead would be a washout and this team didn't have a future.
First into the vacuum was the national rugby side. On St Patrick's Day they won the Grand Slam, making history at the other end of the spectrum by becoming only the third Irish side ever to do the clean sweep. In May, Leinster rugby won the European Cup for the fourth time and doubled up with the Pro14 title two weeks later.
By now a hurling championship that would go down as the greatest ever witnessed was underway. It seized the public imagination and culminated with a young Limerick team adding a layer of unforgettable romance to an already overflowing storyline.
In late July and early August the women's national hockey team broke from obscurity to go all the way to their sport's World Cup final. For a few weeks they were the story of the summer. And just last Sunday, Dublin's Gaelic football team won its fourth All-Ireland title in a row to enter the history books too.
Sport in this country had forged ahead without as much as a backwards glance at the national soccer team. And we weren't exactly missed at the World Cup either. In truth, no one at home or abroad was thinking much about Martin O'Neill or Roy Keane or their players. The public had dropped them like the proverbial hot potato.
Therefore, when news emerged in January that O'Neill had been flirting with a return to Premier League management through Stoke City, it didn't seem especially relevant either. He could go, he could stay, it didn't much matter one way or the other. All the episode did was to further expose the manager's fragile ego. Suitably embarrassed, he turned on Tony O'Donoghue when the RTÉ man sought to question him about it in front of the cameras a few days later. It was a strange piece of behaviour by O'Neill; his line of defence came across as odd, if not downright bizarre.
In any event, the public quickly moved on. There was the rugby, the hurling, the hockey and the Dubs to follow in the months ahead. So, when the Ireland squad and their manager and assistant re-emerged from their long hibernation last week, it was to the sound of a deafening yawn nationwide. What the hell is this Nations League thing anyway? And who on earth is Callum Robinson? It seems that with every fresh squad announcement these days, the list of obscure journeymen grows ever longer. The lack of star quality only adds to the general sense of stagnation. There isn't a single Irish player worth watching for, in terms of either charisma or flair.
Maybe the FAI was grateful then for the publicity generated by Declan Rice and Harry Arter, even if it was the wrong kind of PR. Both of them had done a runner. Rice all of a sudden had turned green at the prospect of being locked forever in a green jersey, while Arter had a bust-up with Keane in camp last summer and still had the hump over it.
And so to Wales in Cardiff on Thursday. No news, except the same news. Although it might be newsworthy that even the Welsh are showing us up now. The home side played Ireland off the park. They were smart, vibrant and ambitious on the ball. Obviously the contrast with their opponents goes without saying.
O'Neill and Keane watched on as their midfield was outplayed and overwhelmed. Not that it matters much, but they should be sacked. The next man in will be dealing with the same bunch of mediocrities. But whoever is in charge is supposed to be getting the best out of whatever is there. The manager and his lieutenant are patently not doing so. They should have walked after the 5-1 in November. Instead, despite this shambles, and despite O'Neill's one-night stand with Stoke, John Delaney offered him a new two-year deal. Ideally, Delaney and the FAI's board of yes-men would be sacked too, for presiding over this collapse in the production of home-grown talent.
But, wouldn't you know it, they're off to Poland for a friendly on Tuesday - an exercise that is not so much wilfully irrelevant as proudly redundant.
Sunday Indo Sport