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How Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill restored our faith in Irish football in 2013

The duo had a positive impact on supporter morale when they took over the national side earlier this year.

Martin O'Neill (right) and assistant manager Roy Keane before the International Friendly with Latvia at the Aviva Stadium earlier this year.
Martin O'Neill (right) and assistant manager Roy Keane before the International Friendly with Latvia at the Aviva Stadium earlier this year.

THIS TIME LAST year, morale surrounding the Ireland football team was arguably at an all-time low.

2012 was an unequivocal disaster, with catastrophe after catastrophe reminding people how steeply Irish football has fallen (and other countries have risen) since the not-so-distant days when the team could go to a World Cup and actually enjoy the majority of possession against Spain. Ireland lost four and won two of the six competitive games they played that year, with the victories coming against minnows of international football in Kazakhstan and the Faroe Islands. In short, there was virtually nothing to get excited about — a factor underlined by the aggressively unattractive style of football the then-Ireland manager favoured.

The standard of the opposition was undoubtedly very high, but it wasn’t the losses in themselves that were so dispiriting. Few people seriously expected Ireland to beat Spain, Croatia, Italy or Germany, but it was the manner of the performances that was so egregious. The complete lack of tactical nous, intelligence and fight that characterised the team’s displays in any game that mattered offended those who insisted the side could be more than just whipping boys for the bigger nations. Whereas the Irish team had also failed to reach the 2010 World Cup under Trap, the conviction with which the team took on France in the second leg of that memorable qualification play-off had generated false optimism for the future.

Moreover, Ireland had waited ten years to qualify for a major tournament, yet Euro 2012 felt so downbeat that the average fan would be forgiven for wondering why they even bothered persevering in the first place.

The year then ended with a 1-0 friendly loss to Greece. Remember that game? Neither do I — and such reactions were growing increasingly prevalent, as the team and subsequently, the games in which they participated, were disconcertingly deprived of any palpable identity.

Consequently, in conjunction with the onset of 2013, the question on many people’s lips was not ‘could we qualify’ but ‘should we care’. After all, the only footballing sin greater than playing in an impossibly dull style is failing to achieve positive results while doing so.

Yet in spite of the feeling of mass apathy that the team routinely inspired, the year actually began in a somewhat promising fashion. The 2-0 friendly victory over Poland, in which Wes Hoolahan was finally given a chance under Trapattoni (the Norwich midfielder rewarded him in turn by scoring the team’s second goal), was at least a minor case in point.

Hoolahan then again featured as a substitute against Sweden away, as Ireland secured a credible 0-0 draw and arguably deserved better on the basis of their encouraging performance. Nevertheless, this was the last real hint of (typically short-lived) optimism under the Italian.

Ireland’s subsequent concession of a last-minute David Alaba goal, as they drew 2-2 with Austria, felt like the symbolic moment in which any hope of the team reaching Brazil ended. Even if Trap’s side’s chances weren’t definitively killed until the return fixture against Alaba and co, it served as the demoralising blow from which Ireland were unlikely to recover.

Amid the match’s concluding stages, as the team led 2-1 with seven minutes plus stoppage time remaining, Trap opted to bring on Paul Green to replace Shane Long, when most pundits were demanding the introduction of the only player at the manager’s disposal that night capable of keeping the ball — Wes Hoolahan. The decision epitomised the Italian’s innate conservatism, which had worked to a point in the past, yet the luck that Ireland had enjoyed in places like Bari and Moscow previously under the Italian eluded the side on this occasion, with Trap’s already questionable methods severely criticised as a result.

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His subsequent now-infamous “we are Ireland” post-match interview (see above) came across as a brutal admission of the situation’s hopelessness, when an uplifting rallying cry was imperative. The Italian had generally been praised for the assured and genial manner in which he had dealt with the press, but now that his best-laid plans were finally beginning to fall apart, his previously smooth PR skills were also starting to erode.

From thereon in, with Trap finally looking as pessimistic as his playing style, failure felt inevitable, and it was no significant surprise when the team conformed to the incredibly widespread negative expectations with which they were becoming almost irrevocably associated.

Thereafter, following Trapattoni’s swift exit owing to the Irish side’s unequivocal failure, caretaker boss Noel King enjoyed a brief but memorable and somewhat fiery tenure in charge. During this time, King at least managed to persuade some of the players that Trap had ostracised to return to the squad, but the results and performances were equally unremarkable for the duration of this fleeting period.

The subsequent appointment of Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill, however, was as shocking as it was inspired. Most other realistic alternatives would have been greeted with a yawn and abiding grumbling from skeptics convinced that the team was no longer good enough to properly compete at international level, such was the level of despondency that five years of Trap had prompted.

Nevertheless, the decision to pick a respected coach such as O’Neill, alongside arguably both Ireland’s greatest and most talked-about player ever, ensured an immediate feel-good factor greeted their arrival, as any lingering cynicism from the previous regime was drowned out by the wave of euphoria in reaction to this unexpected news. Surely, nonetheless, the nation can be forgiven for ostensibly overreacting as if it were the second coming — excitement, in relation to the team, had been at a premium for over half a decade, after all.

The dynamic duo’s first match in charge was a game against Latvia that Ireland won in a relatively impressive fashion, notwithstanding the opposition’s patent lack of quality and questionable motivation levels. Yet just as significant as the performance was the rapturous atmosphere it conjured. Save perhaps the pre-Euro 2012 match against Bosnia, it is hard to recall any home friendly in recent memory that created so much interest and enthusiasm among the supporters — and it could largely be attributed to that one decision to simply appoint these two legends of Irish football to oversee the team’s fortunes.

Granted, it’s invariably natural at the end of every year to maintain a positive outlook and hope that the next 12 months will be better, even in the most depressing of circumstances, and especially when it coincides with the onset of a new managerial team. On the other hand though, there remains a lack of any real evidence to support the contention that Keane and O’Neill will improve upon Trapattoni and Tardelli’s modest achievements.

However, just as this time last year, Irish fans will have hoped that the 6-1 loss to Germany was just an aberration, and that qualification for Brazil was still an eminent possibility, this year fans will be eager to overlook how ordinary the team appeared against any semi-decent opposition in the past few months and remain hopeful that MONKeano can renew the spirit and results of the side’s glory years.

With 23 places now available at the next Euros (in addition to France, who automatically qualify as hosts), the least Ireland should therefore be hoping for is qualification and an avoidance of the type of humiliation suffered in the summer of 2012 — especially by the standards of their two notoriously perfectionist coaches. Fans, naturally, will accordingly be optimistic that nothing will happen to change this perception in 2014.

Is such a mindset a little overly expectant? Possibly, but with Keane and O’Neill — two men who have spent the majority of their careers overachieving — at the helm, we can afford to dream a little, can’t we?

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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