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Sacking Martin O'Neill would be a short-term solution to a long-term problem

The ultimate results manager has overseen a run of just one victory in his last nine matches.

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the National Anthems last night.
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the National Anthems last night.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

AROUND THIS TIME last year, Martin O’Neill was asked about the possibility of blooding young players and his apparent reluctance to do so.

“You want to try to qualify for competitions, that’s my job,” the Irish boss said. “If, for instance, I had taken up the mantle here almost four years ago and John Delaney had said to me ‘What we want Martin, in four years’ time is a young side that is vibrant and ready to go, so don’t worry about qualification’ I think we could have done that quite easily.”

In other words, O’Neill is portraying himself as the ultimate results manager. “We want to win football matches,” as assistant boss Roy Keane said amid his memorable first press conference.

The appointment of the so-called ‘dream team’ in 2013 felt like a box-office decision at the time. Unfortunately though, the football the duo have overseen in recent months seems more like a little-seen independent movie in which nothing happens for long periods.

But more importantly than the lack of entertainment on offer, after the latest setback at the Aviva last night, Ireland have won just one of their past nine matches under O’Neill. To make matters worse, owing to recent failures, they are set to be third seeds when the Euro 2020 qualifying draw takes place in Dublin this December.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. They wanted to win football matches and for a while, they did.

For all the questionable tactics and current flaws of the team, no Irish manager since Mick McCarthy has delivered as many memorable nights as O’Neill.

The 1-0 victory over Germany. The play-off win against Bosnia. That unforgettable night versus Italy in Lille. The triumphs on the road in Austria and Wales — you would have to go back to the early days of the former boss Jack Charlton, the 1-0 victory over Scotland in 1987 to be precise, to find an away victory of similar quality and significance.

Yet it feels as if the Irish team have been going backwards for some time now. After the euphoria of the Euros, the hangover did not set in immediately. In fact, that November 2016 win in Austria left Ireland top of their World Cup qualifying group and in a seemingly strong position to qualify automatically for Russia at the start of 2017.

Since that memorable night in Vienna though, a rot has set in. Ireland subsequently have played 11 competitive matches and won only two — 2-0 against Moldova and 1-0 versus Wales.

Moldova are a poor side, so not much can be read into that outcome while increasingly, the Welsh encounter in question feels like an anomaly. Ireland rode their luck on the night in Cardiff, prevailing largely thanks to some heroic defending and scoring with one of the few half-chances that came their way.

The Boys in Green have lost two games on the bounce to Wales since then, adding to the sense that they are a team in regression.

O’Neill last night insisted that his side were still capable of mounting a serious qualification bid for Euro 2020, but there has been little evidence on the pitch of late to back up those claims.

In the five years of the 66-year-old coach’s reign, fans have been willing to put up with the unattractive style and the conservative selection policy on the basis that the team were successful. The end justified the means. Those wins over Germany, Bosnia and Austria were not filled with scintillating football, but they were wins nonetheless.

Cyrus Christie dejected after the game Ireland's Cyrus Christie dejected after the game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Martin O’Neill, increasingly, has used the excuse that his squad is technically inept, and it is an indisputable contention. If Pep Guardiola was appointed as Ireland boss tomorrow, even he would likely struggle to turn the team into a proficient possession outfit.

Yet some of the more controversial aspects of O’Neill’s management style have begun to be questioned more intensively as results have worsened.

Why play Cyrus Christie as a midfielder for the first time since he was “about 14″ and only inform him of the decision shortly before kick-off? Why exacerbate an already bad situation by taking off two holding midfielders against an already dominant Denmark during a vital World Cup play-off? Why wait until it is seemingly too late to cap the prodigiously gifted Declan Rice in a competitive fixture? Why, every time Ireland compete, does it feel like everything is off the cuff and there is no real cohesion to the play?

No one is expecting the Boys in Green to become an elite footballing nation, but one point from two games against unremarkable sides deprived of their best players has lent further credence to the suspicion that for all the team’s limitations, O’Neill is still not getting the best out of the tools at his disposal.

There are far deeper problems in Irish football though, and sacking the manager will not make them disappear. The development of players is the biggest concern. Rice, who was comfortably Ireland’s best player in at least two of the three friendlies he played earlier this year, was developed in the English system. Of last night’s starting XI, Callum Robinson, Aiden O’Brien, Cyrus Christie, Harry Arter and Richard Keogh were all developed in the English system. At U21 level, the situation is not significantly better. One squad last year, for instance, featured just five players born in the Republic of Ireland.

Of course, for decades, the Irish team have relied on players born elsewhere, as have most other countries at one stage or another, and there is nothing wrong with doing it per se. But the extent on which this approach has been utilised of late is an indictment on the production line (or lack thereof) in this country.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill recently gave an illuminating interview in the Irish Times to Michael Walker.

Though focusing largely on the North’s problems, many of the criticisms could just as easily have applied to the Republic.

He pointed out how the globalisation of British football had made it harder than ever for Irish players to make it in England, hence the growing number of individuals who have to make do with Championship football at best.

And perhaps the key quote was: “We have to elevate the perception of Irish football. We have to elevate the perception of our leagues.”

Hoping young players come through an English club’s academy has proven increasingly fruitless. More emphasis needs to be put on the League of Ireland and the schoolboy clubs below that level to develop young talent. Yet the lack of support and sufficient structures in place for domestic-based players has been an issue for a long time, and it has culminated in the present situation, where it is arguably the worst collection of players the senior team has had at its disposal for decades.

Yet as painstaking as it can be to watch the current team labour even against sides of dubious footballing quality such as Georgia, there remains optimism for the future in some quarters.

Ruud Dokter FAI High Performance Director Ruud Dokter insists progress is made at underage level. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Dutchman Ruud Dokter was appointed FAI High Performance Director in 2013 and he has been implementing some significant changes since then, most notably the gradual introduction of underage national U13, U15, U17 and U19 leagues. However, it will take several more years to definitively determine whether this project has been a success or not.

Dokter himself has urged patience. “People say we don’t have talent but we do,” he told reporters earlier this month.

“They say we don’t have strikers but we do. It’s about identifying them and developing them.

“It’s always long-term. I know you want to hear a time frame but you shouldn’t be looking at just five years, that doesn’t work.

“Do you know when Belgium started to reshape their education and their plans?

“They started to make the plans after Euro 2000 — the same with Germany, they had a bad tournament and you know the result.

“But it takes a long time, that is inevitable. There’s no quick fix.”

Pointing out these issues is not to suggest the current team cannot do better. It is merely to highlight that Martin O’Neill or whoever is in charge of the Irish team is and will continue to be hamstrung by factors way beyond their control indefinitely, problems which have been the result of years of neglect involving player pathways and development at underage level.

Dokter’s positivity has been echoed by O’Neill, who told reporters recently. “I was speaking to our young managers only the other day, the lads leading the under 17s and 19s, you wouldn’t believe how enthusiastic those lads are, how talented those young lads are. You wouldn’t believe it.

The players want to play for their country. These things here coming up [with players declaring or not declaring for Ireland], it won’t be in my time but you will see a spell here where we will have proper Premier League players playing for us.

“It probably might not even be in the next manager’s time, but they will come through and we have something good in place now.

“There is enthusiasm and the drive and the determination to put it right, at least there is some sort of structure here.”

But even allowing for all these caveats, many supporters still wish that O’Neill could be a bit more bold with his selections. 

One of the Ireland boss’ favourite mantras is that international football is a “step up” from club level, yet this claim is at best debatable.

Ireland’s recent over-reliance on experience was highlighted by the nominations for Young Player of the Year at the FAI Awards last March: Callum O’Dowda (23), Shane Duffy (26) and Cyrus Christie (26) were up for the prize.

In the Wales starting XI last night, there was Connor Roberts (23), David Brooks (21), Tyler Roberts (19), Harry Wilson (21), Tom Lawrence (24) and Matthew Smith (18). Chris Mempham (21) and Ethan Ampadu (18) would have had a good chance of playing had they not been injured. Even Ben Davies, at 25, has already racked up over 100 appearances for Tottenham and over 40 caps for his country, yet is younger than all bar two of last night’s Ireland starting XI.

The likes of Wilson (Liverpool), Ampadu (Chelsea) and Smith (Man City) cannot get a look-in at their parent clubs and have had to go on loan in some cases, yet Wales have not been scared to blood them.

Ireland have had some encouraging results at underage level of late, so it would surely be no harm calling up at least one or two promising teenagers into the senior squad.

In their last two encounters with the Republic, Ryan Giggs and Wales have proven that success and experimenting with youngsters are not mutually exclusive. With the current situation as dire as it is, surely it is time Ireland took a leaf out of their book.

While doing so won’t instantaneously revolutionise the style of football or necessarily produce better results, it will at least represent a step away from the short-term thinking that has afflicted Irish football across all levels for several years now.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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