Roy Curtis: 'There was a hard border on the pitch separating Ireland and even the most basic level of imagination'
JAMES McClean could have worn an entire bouquet of poppies in his lapel and it would not have concealed the toxic stench rising up into the November night.
It took two forms, neither remotely pleasant: The pernicious reek of tribal loathing blending with the fetid perfume of another grim Republic of Ireland visit to the cesspit.
The revulsion that is inescapable when these teams meet arrived with a bone-wearying inevitability. There is no backstop against bitterness or enmity and, if it was not remotely as hostile as on that fetid, febrile night in Belfast 25 years ago, still anthems were derided and jeered.
McClean, his every touch both jeered and cheered, was, of course, cast in the role of pantomime villain by the boisterous, Union Jack-waiving traveling support.
Of deeper significance though, was the sheer awfulness of Martin O’Neill’s team. The hard border between the Irish team and the most basic levels of imagination or competence that appeared 12 months ago against Denmark was consolidated. Northern Ireland are pointless in the Nations League, backboned by lower-league artisans, offering little more than blue-collar hustle.
Yet, at times, they were permitted to look like Guardiola-era Barcelona: passing with ambition, dominating possession, achieving a rhythm and pulse beyond hapless opponents.
O’Neill looked on, a study in confused destitution, like somebody utterly flummoxed by a crossword clue. In response, Ireland offered a few morsels of positivity – notably, the magnificent intransigence of Darren Randolph who made two world-class point-blank saves as the resistance in front of him dissolved with an almost comic ineptitude – and an entire banquet of futility.
As the minutes passed, and mistake followed mistake, clueless intervention lurching into an absence of any discernible plan, so paraffin was added to the flames of frustration.
An audit of all the Republic contributed makes for unpleasant, embarrassing and extremely brief reading. Stellar names like Seamus Coleman and Shane Duffy were an anaemic shadow of their red-blooded, buoyant Premier League selves.
So then, another grim, grey cavalcade to add to a bottleneck of mediocrity stretching back over 12 months, a logjam of incompetence that began 366 days earlier with Denmark’s Viking slaughter.
More and more, it feels like the unravelling of O’Neill’s tenure. The Derryman resembled nothing so much as the captain of a listing ship, inert even as water gushed into a gash in the hull and the mainsail lurched into the waves.
As the lemming-rush over the cliff-face of ineptitude continued, a clueless cavalry charge into an abyss of darkness, O’Neill looked impotently on. It is not only in the Palace of Westminster that a high-profile leader is in deep jeopardy; a ghastly 12 months, Ireland incarcerated in a straightjacket of dismay, has carried O’Neill and his enormous salary to the brink.
With just one win in ten games hardly advertising the skills that might be expected in return for a reputed annual remuneration of €1.9m, O’Neill, as he looks to ride out the squalls, was urgently required to rediscover the best of himself.
Instead, the Aviva was again a theatre of discontent as another lacerating anti-climax unfolded. Ireland could not identify the coordinates that might carry them onto the road to redemption. As the yearning for a moment of craft and bite, an infusion of something other than bad blood, went unanswered, so the terrain O’Neill walked became ever more pock-marked with hazard.
Undeniably, a rush of savageries have been inflicted on his reputation over the past year; this added to the accumulated failures that amount to nothing so much as a catalogue of bankruptcy. In those pulverising losses to Denmark and Wales, Ireland plumbed unfathomable depths of mediocrity, the same incoherence repeated here like stitching in an Axminster pattern, a tapestry of awfulness.
That these repeated failures of imagination and creativity, are suffered against opponents so far from the heart of football power, speaks eloquently of the rot so manifest in the national team. If both teams enjoyed a brief sunlit French summer in 2016, they are again inhabiting the game’s nether regions, 33rd and 34th in the world rankings, a combined three wins in 20 games, underclass neighbours.
Only the most embedded partisan could deny, the Republic of Ireland manager was arriving in front of an increasingly agnostic Aviva audience. This illiterate 90-minute gospel according to Martin would hardly have persuaded a single member of the home congregation to kneel again at the 66-year-old’s altar. Instead, the crown he wears may soon be perforated with thorns.