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Eamonn Sweeney: Mindless scepticism becoming a ritual for TV pundits

Talking Point

Eamon Dunphy has questioned several aspects of the Ireland management set-up overseen by manager Martin O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane
Eamon Dunphy has questioned several aspects of the Ireland management set-up overseen by manager Martin O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane
Shane Duffy attempts to get on the ball during Saturday’s draw against Denmark. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

If Ireland fail to beat Denmark and miss out on qualifying for the World Cup tomorrow night, it will be one of the worst results in our football history, a national disgrace which will utterly devalue everything Martin O'Neill has done as manager.

Okay, so that's a spectacularly daft statement, but it's the precise line which the usual suspects will take should things go awry.

Even a defeat on penalties will lead to claims that Ireland's qualifying campaign has been a shambles from start to finish.

A not insignificant minority has been determined to view Ireland in the worst possible light from the very start of proceedings.

The ferocity of the criticism following what looked a creditable away draw with Serbia seemed odd enough at the time; in the light of Serbia's later form, it looks downright weird. It was as though the efforts of the European Finals had to be set at nought straight away so O'Neill's critics could resume their old routine.

There was also a strangeness about the apocalyptic rhetoric which greeted the draw in Georgia. Declarations that this represented a new low for Irish football seemed profoundly ahistorical.

Had these dudes slept through the Staunton years?

The carping continued even after Cardiff, portrayed as a fortunate fluke by the Eeyores among us.

So it wasn't surprising to see the draw in Denmark being lamented on the national broadcaster and elsewhere. Eamon Dunphy's claim that it cast doubt over Ireland's ability to play football was an extreme reaction, but the sour note was echoed by others.

Yet a draw away from home against a side predicted beforehand to be too technically proficient for Ireland to handle seemed a good result. It's only a couple of months, after all, since the Danes defeated Poland 4-0 in Copenhagen.

Ireland did as well as could have been expected, yet there were suggestions that the Danes were there for the taking and that an away goal could have been purloined. Had Ireland won 3-0 the doubters would probably have claimed this as damning proof that we should have qualified automatically.

No one wants pundits to behave like mindless cheerleaders, but mindless scepticism is no great improvement.

I wonder sometimes if the begrudging nature of so much of the commentary stems from O'Neill's unimpressive beginning in the job.

Ireland's European Championship qualifying campaign looked like a failure for so long that there seemed little risk in sticking it to the boss.

Even when the team made it to the Finals, the reaction to our humiliation by Belgium underlined how O'Neill is seen in some quarters as always one defeat away from being revealed as a charlatan.

Yet the Irish feat in qualifying for the second round and giving France a huge fright was a fine one. The manager never got sufficient credit.

Now his team are only 90 minutes away from being only the second ever in our history to reach two major Finals on the trot. This, no matter what transpires in the Aviva, is a sterling effort.

Holland, Turkey, Wales and the Ukraine haven't made it this far. Chile have bitten the dust in South America, the USA have crashed out, the last two African Nations Cup winners, Cameroon and Ivory Coast, couldn't make it. Yet Ireland are still in there with a shout.

What more can we reasonably expect? The sad truth is that the criticism of the Irish manager has a ritual quality about it, like some ancient folk tradition being enacted from force of habit.

Jack Charlton was derided as a philistine and a barbarian; Mick McCarthy mocked and hounded over Saipan; Brian Kerr caricatured as an ineffectual dullard; Staunton portrayed as not up to the job and Giovanni Trapattoni lambasted as a control freak stifling our indigenous flair. Not all of these criticisms were entirely unfounded, but most of them were unfair.

Go back even further and you find Eoin Hand being savaged to such an extent that, as he recently revealed in his autobiography, he poured a pint of beer over Dunphy in retribution.

And despite Dunphy's portrayal of the Johnny Giles era as a halcyon one, his old pal's teams were booed at Lansdowne Road and their manager derided for the perceived boringness of their play.

O'Neill is merely the latest manager to have his achievements underrated and his mistakes over-emphasised. His critics may claim that they're merely concerned with standards, but if nobody is ever good enough for you, that doesn't necessarily mean you have high standards. It probably means you have unrealistic ones.

Unique

It's dishonest to pretend that this scepticism is shared by the public. Our fans are not eejits, they know that Ireland were dour and unadventurous in Denmark, but also that the result sets things up for a grand finale at the Aviva.

Games like tomorrow's second leg are unique occasions in Irish sport. Rugby doesn't unite the public in the same way; neither does an All-Ireland final. The big international nights are like All-Ireland finals with all of our counties playing. Should Ireland come through, few will care about how the victory is achieved.

Affecting patrician disdain at such vulgar pragmatism is snobbery of the worst kind. Football is a people's game and what the people think matters.

A life spent perpetually congratulating yourself on your rigour, realism, righteousness and rationality is a poor thing. Sometimes a little romanticism is no harm. The big nights should be enjoyed when they come along because we have no right to them and we won't always have them.

It would be nice if Ireland could play football like Holland or Chile, but right now every supporter in those countries would gladly swap places with us. That is O'Neill's achievement. Or rather his achievement so far.

We ain't seen nothin' yet.

Irish Independent

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