THE GUARDIAN BEST summarised the grim outlook for Irish football as recently as last June.
Having taken one point from two games off Group D rivals Scotland, the Irish team’s Euro 2016 qualification hopes looked to be in serious danger.
“O’Neill was needing victory here against an apparently resurgent Scotland,” the paper noted. “He needed it all right, not only to keep alive the Republic of Ireland’s hopes of progression to Euro 2016 but to remove the unavoidable sense that O’Neill’s career is destined to peter out in an insipid fashion that seemed so unlikely for so long. This scene, this movie, could never have been factored into the grand plan.
“11 years ago the notion of O’Neill coaching what is essentially a Championship team in international shirts was ludicrous. Not so on a June evening in Dublin where he was seeking to invigorate an Irish campaign and move the narrative away from one of disquiet towards the FAI’s chief executive, John Delaney.”
The criticism was harsh, but many Irish fans at the time probably suspected it was true, and were it not for two unlikely subsequent results — Scotland’s loss away in Georgia, coupled with Ireland’s win at home to Germany — it would be the Scots now battling for a place in France at the play-off stages rather than O’Neill’s men.
Yet the passage above also epitomises the dismissive attitude many hold towards the Irish side, but far from being ‘a team of Championship players,’ the Boys in Green had seven Premier League players starting against Bosnia last night, with three more coming off the bench at various points.
Ahead of the Bosnia game, some suggested Ireland would struggle owing to the absence of key players such as John O’Shea, Jon Walters and Shane Long. But as it turned out, the stand-ins held firm and helped Ireland earn a hard-fought 1-1 draw, with the previously unheralded likes of Richard Keogh, Darren Randolph and Ciaran Clark performing with distinction and alleviating concerns that O’Neill’s squad lacks depth.
Many critics also predicted Ireland would struggle, justifiably singling out Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic as two players a class apart from the other performers on the field. Yet while there is no disputing the talent of the Roma duo, Bosnia as a whole failed to live up to the hype surrounding them in the build-up to this match.
Some people had cited the Bosnians’ 2-0 win over Chris Coleman’s greatly improved Welsh side as a reason for Ireland to be fearful, but anyone who watched that game will know the result flattered them, with two late goals bringing to life a monotonous game in which chances were few and far between for both sides. So in truth, last night’s match was two mid-tier nations with relatively similar levels of ability cancelling each other out for long periods — Bosnia had the greater possession and territory, and looked the more threatening of the two teams, but that is to be expected of the home side.
People have been doubting Ireland’s ability to get results throughout this campaign, but not for the first time of late, Martin O’Neill’s men silenced their critics with an encouraging performance full of perseverance if not panache.
There has been talk in recent weeks over whether O’Neill deserves a contract extension amid the culmination of this campaign. Pessimists suggest the former Celtic boss should be let go if Ireland fail to qualify for the Euros. And while there have been some disappointing results along the way, there have also been signs of progression during this campaign — the prime example, of course, being the stunning 1-0 win over Germany, which was just Ireland’s third competitive win over a team placed above them in the Fifa rankings since the famous 2001 defeat of Holland (victories over Slovakia in 2007 and France over 90 minutes in 2009 being the other two).
O’Neill’s methods have come under criticism during his first qualifying campaign in charge — RTÉ pundit Eamon Dunphy famously branded him “Trapattoni with a Derry accent” at one point.
However, there is a clear difference between O’Neill and Trap — the former is nowhere near as conservative in his thinking as the latter. O’Neill’s willingness to take risks can probably best be seen in the growing faith the manager has shown in Robbie Brady — could you ever imagine the Italian coach starting the Norwich man at left-back against Poland? O’Neill is also not quite as stubborn as Trap tended to be — having previously indicated a reluctance to start Wes Hoolahan away from home, the 63-year-old coach showed last night that it was far from a fixed policy.
Of course, this Irish team is still very much a work in progress. While they continue to look well-organised and relatively solid defensively, they also still struggle in attack. Brady’s superb strike was very much an anomaly, as Ireland seldom looked capable of scoring against Bosnia. They had just one other shot on target and a paltry four shots in total.
The Gibraltar games aside, O’Neill’s men have failed to score more than once in a competitive fixture in over a year — the 2-1 win against Georgia on 7 September 2014 being the last time Ireland doubled their account against decent opposition.
O’Neill still needs to figure out how to get the very best out of footballers like Brady, Hoolahan and Shane Long — players who have impressed sporadically during this campaign, but nowhere near enough to turn Ireland into a formidable attacking force.
Despite a 0-0 draw in the return leg being good enough for the Boys in Green to qualify on away goals, O’Neill has promised to attack on Monday at the Aviva. It seems the wisest option, as hanging on for a 0-0 draw over 90 minutes in such tense circumstances is notoriously difficult, with one late lapse in concentration potentially costing Ireland their Euros spot.
O’Neill gambled at the Aviva last month with an adventurous, attack-minded midfield, and a similar approach and result on Monday will surely silence the skeptics indefinitely.
But even if O’Neill and Ireland come a cropper next week, the FAI must ask themselves a simple question when considering whether the veteran boss is worthy of a new contract: could many other alternative candidates for the job guide the team to a historic win over the world champions and restore the feel-good factor around the Boys in Green in the process?