Tuesday 15 October 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Ireland are pushing towards seven hours without a goal - it feels more like seven years'

19 November 2018; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the UEFA Nations League B match between Denmark and Republic of Ireland at Ceres Park in Aarhus, Denmark. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
19 November 2018; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the UEFA Nations League B match between Denmark and Republic of Ireland at Ceres Park in Aarhus, Denmark. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Roy Curtis

SHOULD Bob Geldof ever feel the urge to add another verse to his dystopian hymn, Martin O’Neill might be credited as an inspiration: Here was one more reason to dislike Mondays.

On this latest evening of cheerless theatre – this was the kind of excruciating production which, in humane society, ought not to proceed without its audience first receiving a heavy opiate anaesthetic - O’Neill’s team were again more doom-town than Boomtown .

Only comically inept Danish finishing, the butt of a post and desperate, 11-behind-the-ball defending, averted another loss. On the rare occasions Ireland had the ball, there was no discernible plan. 

After 80 minutes, when the introduction of Michael Obafemi at least ended any fears of Declan Rice 2.0, the attempts on goal stats were skewed wildly in Denmark's favour, 21-3.

A flyboy enduring the kind of headlong, downward spirals that have reduced O’Neill to a wobbly, dazed, lame-duck, would have long ago activated the ejector seat.

But, then, not many pilots have a €1.9m fortune sitting in the cargo hold of their doomed aircraft.

Here is the essence of O’Neill’s lingering managerial death.

And why all the savageries inflicted on Ireland’s reputation over the past 12 months have not seen the Abbotstown guillotine, the one that did for Trap and Stan, sharpened and oiled.

The FAI simply cannot afford to do the right thing.

John Delaney no longer has the financial muscle to read the last managerial rites to a coach on whose watch Ireland have disintegrated as an even moderately competitive force.

Against a half-interested Denmark, the thumbscrew torture of watching an O’Neill team delivered another evening of medieval sensory punishment.

The manager will, of course, put a positive spin on a clean sheet and away draw, talk of progress and argue again that the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign (the draw takes place in Dublin on Sunday week) will bring further, incremental improvement.

Ireland were again a cold house for coherent attacking play: No shots on target, no sideline inspiration, a fourth successive game without a goal for the first time in 21 years.

It is now one win in 11 (against a second string USA) dating back over 13 months during which O’Neill’s approval rating as a game-changing, master motivator has clacked down through the floors like an elevator loose from its moorings.

A team marooned in a wasteland of imagination, adrift in a creative tundra, is pushing toward seven hours without a goal. It feels closer to seven years.

Ireland have become the prizefighter so obsessed with avoiding a haymaker that they decline to throw a single punch of their own.

There has been Nations League relegation, pulverising humiliations at the hands of Denmark and Wales, tactical hari-kari, fear and loathing in the treatment room, a killing sense of drift, of a coaching ticket on the road to nowhere. 

O’Neill has authored Ireland’s most dismal calendar year since the pre-Charlton era. The nation is dangerously close to getting nostalgic about Steve Staunton.

A joke with a profoundly disturbing punchline is the one that reveals the 66-year-old Derryman’s annual salary to be three times that of Joe Schmidt.

Here, in the latest advance towards the borders of GUBU, Cyrus Christie was again named again in midfield. Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady – silhouettes of the vibrant 2016 boys of summer - offered the potency of an alcohol-free beer.

And, the tenement-dwelling poverty of the approach, the absence of attacking ambition or a high-press, evoked the dispiriting melancholy of Frank McCourt’s Limerick childhood.

The dispiriting pursuit of watching Ireland might be regarded as Angela’s Ashes without the endless rain.

O’Neill might talk of an upward step but only because the bar had been re-calibrated so low that the planet’s most elastic limbo dancer might not be able to slither under.

To paraphrase Geldof’s 1979 original: The silicon chip inside our head got switched…to last Saturday and rugby’s beautiful day. If the slaying of New Zealand offered an intoxicating storyline, here was the thumping hangover.

Brady and Christie even managed Johnny Sexton impersonations to mark the occasion; unfortunately, kicking the ball straight into touch when completely unmarked is not considered a coveted skill in association football.

Despite the game’s dead rubber status, O’Neill was not for removing his favourite garment: that well-worn cloak of conservatism.

Ireland unveiled the kind of blanket defence ordinarily deployed in the manager’s native province in the height of a championship summer.

If CIE ever parked as many buses, the national transport system would grind to a halt.

Aidan O’Brien was isolated, frustrated, and starved of possession. O’Neill continually bemoans his lack of a "natural goal-scorer", but, marooned in the no-man’s-land of this formation, Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero or Mo Salah would go months without firing a kill-shot.

To the precipitously decreasing numbers retaining the will to watch O’Neill’s team, either live or on television, couldn’t- care-less indifference has become the default setting.

Damningly, under the current regime, Ireland have lost their public and their credibility. 

In football terms, to borrow from another Geldof title, they have been reduced to a banana republic.

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