Quinn insists O'Neill should not be judged on Danish flop
When Niall Quinn walked into the Irish team hotel at Dublin airport for the first time, Ireland manager Jack Charlton soon brought the tall teenage striker from Arsenal down to size.
Nervous and uncertain of his surroundings and meeting his esteemed international team-mates, Quinn noticed Big Jack was holding court with a gaggle of journalists in reception. And as he waited to check in, the manager spotted him and in mid-flow, with experienced hacks hanging onto his every word, the Geordie turned to his assistant Maurice Setters and bellowed: "Bloody hell, Maurice. We've not called up that lanky buggah have we?" The crowd turned. "I think we had to, Jack," said the number two.
It was just before the Iceland tournament in the summer of 1986, the start of Charlton's reign. Quinn had every right to be anxious when he joined the Irish squad 31 years ago for a three-team tournament and the first of his 92 caps. Charlton inherited the majority of the team from Eoin Hand and it was whittled down to 14 by the time they lifted the country's first ever trophy with victories over the hosts and the Czech Republic. There were big hitters from big clubs in that squad and when they returned to competitive action and their first successful qualifying campaign a few months later, the names just got bigger and better.
When Ireland reached their first World Cup in Italy in 1990, only six of the squad played outside the top European leagues and one of them was Packie Bonner's understudy Gerry Peyton, who was at AFC Bournemouth. The others were former Manchester United pair Frank Stapleton and Kevin Moran, who were playing for Blackburn in the first division, a young David Kelly at Leicester, Middlesbrough's Bernie Slaven and late entrant, Swindon's Alan McLoughlin, who had just won promotion.
Four years later, when Charlton took Ireland to the United States, the number not among the new English Premiership was down to just four. Kelly and McLoughlin had moved, but to first division Wolves and Portsmouth, John Aldridge was with Tranmere and a teenage Jason McAteer was making a name for himself at Bolton Wanderers.
Fifteen years ago, when Mick McCarthy finally reached his first World Cup finals as manager - and Ireland's last - he called up six outside the top flight, including four players under 25 and experienced centre-backs Gary Breen and Kenny Cunningham, who were at Coventry and Wimbledon respectively.
The clubs had changed. There were no Liverpool or Manchester United players in Japan and South Korea. Roy Keane saw to that. But the majority of McCarthy's squad had finished in the top half of the Premier League that year, with Newcastle United and Leeds United qualifying for Europe.
Compare that to the squad O'Neill would have chosen if his team had qualified for Russia. Even with Everton pair Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy back on board, half of his final selection would be playing in the Championship.
The figures are stark and for Quinn demonstrate the difficulty O'Neill has faced since he took over from Giovanni Trapattoni. The growth of the Premier League, and its most recent reliance on highly-paid players from across the globe, has impacted on all the home nations. Only England have qualified for the 2018 World Cup.
"When I went to England," recalled Quinn. "I had Welsh, Scots and English lads trying to be better than me and that was just to get in the Arsenal reserves. If a kid comes from Ireland to England now, he has to be better than the world.
"I can still remember their names: Jonathan Wood, who was Welsh schoolboy, Jon Purdie, Lawrence Osborne and Paul Merson. We were all fighting to get in the reserves from the youth team and I knew I had to work hard . . . imagine what an Irish kid has to do now?
"I was not that far ahead of the others but I had hit the ground running when I got my little sniff and they don't get a sniff now. I had never played for the Irish schoolboys but I got lucky when I came through a little gap, there is no little gap now.
"Since the Premier League exploded, the odds of Irish lads making it at the top teams have reduced dramatically. Looking back, it was not impossible to get a sniff then. If anything you had a chance because Irish football was held in high regard. The Irish team was doing well under Jack and because of Jack's teams, players like Damien Duff and Robbie Keane came into the system.
"It comes in waves. We need a few young lads to come through together, take it by the scruff of the neck but it is just hard to do that when you are playing in the Championship every week. We had top-class players in the squads. It is frightening to make the comparisons. It is really thin now.
"One lad who should look on Tuesday's defeat as an opportunity is Sean Maguire. If I was him, coming away from that game, I'd be thinking this is my chance to make a name for myself."
Quinn returned to the Sky punditry on Tuesday night and did not hold back on his assessment of Ireland's second-half capitulation and O'Neill's drastic half-time substitutions. With a fresh perspective on the limitations of O'Neill's choices, he is even more perplexed by the ones he made at half-time and the idea they were necessary or might even work. They played into Christian Eriksen's brilliant brain and feet.
Quinn said: "It helps us understand how well Martin did in organising them to deal with the players playing in better teams over the entire group matches. But here I am, still scratching my head, asking, 'What he was thinking?' I can't fathom it. Organisation was key and motivation was key and I can't understand why he backed off that plan completely and abandoned those principles that got him 90 per cent of way there.
"Perhaps the early goal led us into a false sense of security about how we were playing. We gave away two poor goals, but that was compounded with the changes at half-time when there was no need. I am surprised with the quality and level of coaches around him that they couldn't see it and there was not some persuasion to see the game out, as most people saw it rolling out."
As Sunderland chairman, Quinn hired O'Neill as manager and still believes the 65-year-old should continue in the role for Ireland's Euro 2020 campaign.
"I am admirer. I was a fan and this game would not make me think any more or less of him as a football man. It was a more than decent effort and in the cold light of day, and with hindsight, can be applauded. He came so close and let it go in such an unusual fashion, but I hope he just makes us better.
"I would hate him to be judged on some decisions made during that game because progress has been made from being in the fourth pot initially - the stats point that out.
"Had we been sitting here and Denmark had nicked a 2-1 victory, despite all our organisation and defending, we would say what a brilliant effort, you are so unlucky pal. But capitulating in the play-offs, arguably the biggest game in his tenure, people have a very different view of things.
"There should be no debate about his new contract. It is obvious his tenure needs to go on. He has served us well in the group and first leg. I hope he is not too stung by the criticism. I hope he gets himself and his thought process together and gets more recognition for bringing us so close. There should be more appreciation for playing the way he does.
"I've read the articles since and anybody who is out there thinking we should be playing shangri-la football and tapping it around are away with the birds. People have to accept that the way forward is to be rock-solid at the back, boringly defensive, try to stop teams and hit them on the break having soaked up the pressure, like we did against Austria and Wales. It is just crazy how it went out of sync, but we came so close."
Sunday Indo Sport