From Lille to Aarhus: the highs and lows of the Martin O’Neill era
O’Neill’s five-year tenure reached dizzying heights before reaching an ignominious end
Robbie Brady celebrates his later winner against Italy in Lille. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Martin O’Neill’s five-year reign as Republic of Ireland manager is over.
The 66-year-old signed a new two-year deal as recently as January 2018 - but his side’s subsequent dismal form has forced the FAI into action.
O’Neill - along with assistant manager Roy Keane - guided Ireland to the knockout stages of Euro 2016, generating the biggest buzz around the national team since the 2002 World Cup.
However, failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after a play-off hammering at the hands of Denmark - and the turgid football which has followed - has seen O’Neill and Keane run out of lives, as memories of Lille slowly fade away.
Ultimately, a failure to win a single competitive fixture in 2018 - as well as a recent run of four games without a goal, and sliding ticket sales - have proved the final straws.
But while he has met an ignominious end, it wasn’t all bad. Here are the highs, and the lows, of the Martin O’Neill era.
November 15th 2013, Ireland 3 Latvia 0 (friendly)
September 7th 2014, Georgia 1 Ireland 2 (Euro 2016 qualifiers)
The first competitive assignment of O’Neill’s tenure looked to be heading towards an uninspiring draw Tbilisi until a late intervention from Aiden McGeady. McGeady had given Ireland the lead but his side were drawing 1-1 heading into injury-time. However the winger - then plying his trade at Everton - spun on the edge of the box and rifled a left-footed effort into the top left corner. With Gibraltar up next at home, Ireland’s qualification campaign was off to a flyer.
October 14th 2014, Germany 1 Ireland 1 (Euro 2016 qualifiers)
A famous night for Ireland in Gelsenkirchen. A trip to play world champions Germany on home soil was a fairly daunting proposition, but O’Neill’s men somehow escaped with a point having trailed deep into injury-time. John O’Shea’s 94th-minute equaliser was one of a number of iconic moments which came during the early years of O’Neill.
November 14th 2014, Scotland 1 Ireland 0 (Euro 2016 qualifiers)
A reality check. Gordon Strachan’s Scotland were Ireland’s main competition for third place in Group D - and with it a play-off spot - and they landed a major blow at Celtic Park. Shaun Maloney’s 75th-minute winner meant the honeymoon was now over.
September 7th 2015, Ireland 1 Georgia 0 (Euro 2016 qualifiers)
Ireland had dropped vital points at home to Scotland and Poland (both games ending 1-1) but they were handed a vital lifeline when Strachan’s side were beaten 1-0 away to Georgia. Ireland’s qualification hopes required six points from a double-header against Gibraltar and the Georgians. Gibraltar were duly beaten 4-0 away but Ireland were made to squirm three days later - Jon Walters’ 69th-minute winner against Georgia keeping O’Neill’s side afloat.
October 8th 2015, Ireland 1 Germany 0 (Euro 2016 qualifiers)
One of the great nights. Ireland headed into their final two fixtures - at home against Germany and away to Poland - realistically needing one win to secure third place in Group D. The world champions in Dublin? No problem. Darren Randolph - who would go on to be one of the success stories of the O’Neill era - replaced an injured Shay Given in the first half. And it was his cultured pass - or long ball - onto which Shane Long scampered before rifling the ball past Manuel Neuer and sending Lansdowne Road into raptures. Ireland headed into the final game away to Poland knowing a play-off place was secured.
November 16th 2015, Ireland 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina 0 (Euro 2016 play-offs, Ireland win 3-1 on aggregate)
Perhaps one of the most underrated results of the O’Neill era, given what preceded and followed it. Ireland were unseeded in the play-off draw and drew top seeds Bosnia, yet they disposed of Edin Dzeko’s side fairly comfortably. Robbie Brady earned his side a 1-1 draw in the opening away leg, before a Jon Walters brace at the Aviva three days later set up a 3-1 win on aggregate. France beckoned.
June 22nd 2016, Italy 0 Ireland 1 (Euro 2016)
The pinnacle of O’Neill’s time in charge, and the greatest night in Irish football since the heady days of Japan & South Korea. Needing a victory to guarentee qualification for the knockout stages, Ireland faced a miserly - if admittedly far from vintage - Italy side in their final Group E fixture. The game was heading for a draw until Wes Hoolahan delivered a perfect cross from the right and Brady leaped into the Lille night, flicking a header beyond Salvatore Sirigu and sending Ireland through. The Stade Pierre-Mauroy exploded. Things would never be quite as good again.
November 12th 2016, Austria 0 Ireland 1 (World Cup 2018 qualifiers)
The moment when qualification for back-to-back major tournaments seemed a tantalising, realistic prospect. Ireland delivered one of their most complete and disiciplined performances under O’Neill, as they withstood first-half pressure before James McClean’s second-half strike secured a precious three points. It was Ireland’s first win over Austria since 1963, and three years after taking over O’Neill remained the man for the job.
March 24th 2017, Ireland 0 Wales 0 (World Cup 2018 qualifiers)
A game not remembered for the result. Séamus Coleman - Ireland’s best player and captain - had his leg broken in a challenge by Wales’s Neil Taylor. Qualification would be a much tougher prospect for Ireland without their talisman.
October 9th 2017, Wales 0 Ireland 1 (World Cup 2018 qualifiers)
The final real hurrah - and competitive victory - of the O’Neill era. Ireland headed to Cardiff knowing only a win over Wales would see them secure a play-off spot. And they managed it with McClean - again - proving the difference with a thumping 57th minute winner. Ireland were 180 minutes from Russia.
November 14th 2017, Ireland 1 Denmark 5 (World Cup 2018 play-off, Denmark progress 5-1 on aggregate)
When it all went wrong. After grinding their way to a 0-0 draw in Copenhagen Ireland welcomed Denmark to the Aviva Stadium with a place at the 2018 World Cup looming. However, hopes were cruelly and brutally dashed, as Christian Eriksen expertly exposed Ireland’s myriad flaws, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-1 evisceration. The World Cup dream was over, and in hindsight O’Neill’s tenure never really recovered.
January 23rd 2018, O’Neill and Keane agree two-year contract extensions
In a show of faith ahead of the inaugural Uefa Nations League and subsequent Euro 2020 qualification campaign, O’Neill and Keane were awarded new two-year contracts by the FAI. This came after O’Neill was interviewed for the vacant Stoke City job - some months after verbally agreeing to a new contract with the FAI - before he turned down the job at the English club. Signing a new deal with Ireland saw him double his earnings to more than €2 milllion per annum.
September 6th 2018, Wales 4 Ireland 1 (Uefa Nations League)
Ireland’s first competitive since the 5-1 defeat to Denmark proved almost as sobering, as they were thrashed 4-1 by Wales in Cardiff, in their Uefa Nations League opener. Shaun Williams’ 66th minute consolation would prove to be the final competitive goal under O’Neill.
November 19th 2018, Denmark 0 Ireland 0 (Uefa Nations League)
The end. Ireland headed to Denmark already relegated from Uefa Nations League B, and played out an insipid 0-0 draw. O’Neill fielded six defenders, and the stalemate was the fourth consecutive game in which his side had failed to score - following the goalless draw at home to Northern Ireland the week before.
After the game, O’Neill looked towards the future, and promised his charges would make a real fist of Euro 2020 qualification. However, the writing was on the wall, and the O’Neill era limped to an end in the cold in Aarhus.