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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 20 February, 2019
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The biggest misconception about the Irish team was exposed again on Thursday night

There was in marked difference in style when the Republic faced the North during the week.

Republic of Ireland's Seamus Coleman shows his frustration during the match against Northern Ireland.
Republic of Ireland's Seamus Coleman shows his frustration during the match against Northern Ireland.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THERE ARE TWO general schools of thought on Martin O’Neill and Ireland.

When the manager is criticised, there tends to be a common retort. ‘Ireland haven’t got the players.’

When the issue of style, or lack thereof, is discussed, there is a frequent counter-argument. ‘Sure Ireland are never going to be able to play like Spain, so stop complaining.’

But these two responses are missing the point. Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that Ireland’s players are limited to a degree and no one genuinely believes they should or can replicate Spain.

A legitimate complaint, however, and one that is sometimes made by O’Neill’s critics, is: ‘Why can’t the Republic play like the North?’ We have the players to capable of achieving that, at the very least.

More often than not, O’Neill has defended inept performances by pointing out the limitations of his players.

But consider the clubs that the players in last Thursday’s respective starting line-ups represented.

Republic of Ireland: Middlesbrough (Championship), Everton (Premier League), Sheffield United (Championship), Brighton (Premier League), Blackburn (Championship), Stoke (Championship), Aston Villa (Championship), Burnley x 2 (Premier League), Bristol City (Championship), Preston (Championship).

Northern Ireland: Leeds x 2 (Championship), Norwich (Championship), Leicester (Premier League), Kilmarnock (Scottish Premiership), Southampton (Premier League) Burton Albion (League One), Blackburn (Championship), Oxford United (League One), Watford (Premier League), Hearts (Scottish Premiership).

The ‘we don’t have the players’ argument is a lazy one. As the above facts show, the Republic’s players are roughly playing at the same standard with their clubs as the North. If anything, they are representing slightly better teams overall. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey aside, you could say similar about the Wales team, who prevailed in Dublin in the absence of their star duo while dominating possession.

Yet when O’Neill’s men come up against these sides, they are perennially outplayed. There is increasing evidence to suggest Ireland’s struggling players cannot be held primarily accountable for these dismal displays.

The matches feel like Groundhog Day at this stage, regardless of quality of the opposition. There is no evidence of a gameplan. Everything is off the cuff. Pressing is applied only sporadically. Long balls are used liberally. And the overall result is a chaotic mess, with a 0-0 draw or a goal from a set piece the best the international team can hope for at present.

In contrast, Northern Ireland look like a side where everyone knows their role. They were well-drilled on Thursday. They controlled the game, with 58% possession. And, as Michael O’Neill pointed out afterwards, they really should have won, but luckily for the hosts, goalkeeper Darren Randolph produced a man-of-the-match performance.

Both O’Neills have had to work with limited resources. At the moment, there is no doubt as to which of the two is coping better with the tools at their disposal.

For the Republic boss, the team looks broken, and a radical overhaul or re-think is surely needed.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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