It feels as if every­thing has stalled for the Boys in Green – Keith Dug­gan

Mood of ab­so­lute togetherness has been lost as O’Neill era hits low ebb

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE -

When­ever the Martin O’Neill era does end, right­ful trib­ute will be paid to the fab­u­lous night in Dublin three years ago when his Ire­land team hum­bled Ger­many, then the World Cup cham­pi­ons, with a trade­mark 1-0 win, and to the emo­tive scenes against Italy in the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships in Lille.

It is pos­si­ble, though, that when he re­views this pe­riod in his foot­ball life, O’Neill him­self might some­times turn his mind to the grit­tier tri­umph in Vi­enna against Aus­tria in Novem­ber 2016 as a mo­ment when every­thing seemed pos­si­ble.

Those 90 min­utes, spin­ning around James Mc­Clean’s 48th-minute goal, caught the best of the in­her­ent re­solve of the Ir­ish dress­ing room along with O’Neill’s prag­ma­tism and tal­ent for grind­ing out huge results in unlovely games.

Ire­land sab­o­taged Aus­tria’s lofty am­bi­tions that night, grit­ting teeth through an early on­slaught by the home team and then suck­ing all life and ad­ven­ture out of the en­counter be­fore the next half hour.

The home crowd was al­ready thor­oughly dis­ori­ented by the time Mc­Clean, seiz­ing an op­por­tu­nity cre­ated by a sublime Wes Hoola­han left foot pivot pass from cen­tral mid­field, ac­tu­ally scored.

It fin­ished 1-0, and O’Neill was nat­u­rally buoy­ant. Of Séa­mus Cole­man, who cap­tained the team that evening, he en­thused: “Cole­man is great. He’s a great player. He’s taken that cap­taincy on like you wouldn’t be­lieve.”

He was just as eu­phoric about the feel­ing in the squad. “There’s a good spirit. I think some of the se­nior lads help to pro­mote that. I think John O’Shea is ex­cel­lent do­ing it as well. We’re not so bad our­selves in the back room.”

You could all but hear the boys whistling the theme to

The Great Es­cape in the dress­ing room. O’Neill is an elu­sive fig­ure and al­ways dif­fi­cult to read.

But on nights like that, when he is sparkling with en­thu­si­asm, you get a sense of the qual­i­ties that have en­abled him to sur­vive and of­ten flour­ish in the cut-throat game of elite foot­ball man­age­ment.

That win marked the first time in well over a decade since Ire­land had won four games in close prox­im­ity against coun­tries placed higher than them in the Fifa rank­ings.

Shane Long’s fa­mous bolt past Manuel Neuer ini­ti­ated a sig­nif­i­cant run of heavy­weight wins: Ger­many, Bos­nia, Italy and then Aus­tria. Ir­re­spec­tive of how you felt about O’Neill’s vi­sion for how Ire­land should play the game, it was im­pos­si­ble to ar­gue with the results.

Low ebb

That mood of ab­so­lute togetherness and pur­pose couldn’t seem fur­ther away this week­end. Jür­gen Klopp’s frus­trated dis­missal of the Na­tions League as “the most sense­less com­pe­ti­tion in the world” may be true. But it co­in­cides with a cru­cial pe­riod in the cur­rent chap­ter for the Repub­lic of Ire­land team.

This, right now, is the low ebb of the O’Neill era.

What hap­pened? Where did the sol­i­dar­ity and buoy­ancy of Vi­enna go? The hor­rific in­jury suf­fered by Cole­man in the next com­pet­i­tive out­ing after Vi­enna, against Wales in Dublin, was ar­guably a turn­ing point. It was a dark mo­ment in a grim game, and it felt like the team never fully re­cov­ered its equi­lib­rium for the re­main­der of the cam­paign.

Ire­land haven’t played a mean­ing­ful foot­ball match since the night Den­mark evis­cer­ated Ir­ish hopes in the World Cup play-offs with that 5-1 maul­ing in Dublin. That was 11 months ago. Since then, the Repub­lic of Ire­land team has drifted through the tor­por of friendly games in the build-up to the World Cup in Rus­sia be­fore laps­ing into a se­ries of mi­nor crises this au­tumn.

O’Neill now has no choice but to wait and see if De­clan Rice de­cides to com­mit his in­ter­na­tional fu­ture to Ire­land or to Eng­land, the coun­try of his birth. The some­times ma­ligned Glenn Whe­lan will hardly ap­pear in a com­pet­i­tive Ir­ish mid­field se­lec­tion again. Wes Hoola­han, the team’s most cre­ative force, was among the se­nior play­ers to re­tire this year.

Los­ing a mid­fielder as promis­ing and as­sured as Rice would be an ab­sence felt long after O’Neill has stepped down.

Stand-off

Harry Arter’s pub­li­cised stand-off with Keane hasn’t pre­vented his re­turn for the next se­ries of games but James Mc­Clean’s re­marks this week, that Arter was “wrong” to opt out last time, hints at the ten­sion cre­ated by the episode.

The squad’s lim­ited at­tack­ing op­tions are the chief on-field dilemma go­ing into tonight’s game.

Long, for all his graft, is 31, re­cov­er­ing from in­jury and en­dur­ing a painful spell in which he is un­able to find the net for ei­ther Southamp­ton or Ire­land.

Poor results in the next two games will leave Ire­land with a third place seed­ing for the upcoming Euro 2020 qual­i­fy­ing draw in 2020.

The ag­gre­gate results of the last two games – nine goals against, two for – don’t re­flect the re­silience of O’Neill’s teams over his pe­riod in charge.

But it is im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore such an alarm­ing dip in form, mood and mo­men­tum. It feels as if every­thing has stalled.

The Ir­ish fans who buy tick­ets to see the team over the next two games can at least con­sole them­selves that they are sup­port­ing the team when the play­ers need it most.

Ire­land teams thrive on a con­trary de­fi­ance and stick­i­ness and a be­lief that, some­how, they will find a way.

All of that has been lost over the past few months.

Ire­land and O’Neill now have to fight through the most sense­less com­pe­ti­tion in the world to try to find them­selves again.

On nights like that, when he is sparkling with en­thu­si­asm, you get a sense of the qual­i­ties that have en­abled O’Neill to sur­vive and of­ten flour­ish in the cut-throat game of elite foot­ball man­age­ment

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