Martin O’Neill ponders what comes next as long hiatus looms

Ireland manager hopes players will ‘come back and fight’ but says some likely to retire

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during the second leg against Denmark. Photograph: Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during the second leg against Denmark. Photograph: Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith

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As the Republic of Ireland’s gruelling campaign to qualify for next summer’s World Cup came to an ignominious close on Tuesday night, it was clear that this Irish squad had reached a crossroads. Shortly before Martin O’Neill left Lansdowne Road, he stopped to reflect on both his own and the squad’s future and indicated that he remains keen to persevere in the job.

“I was just asked that question in there,” he said of a media conference in which he was asked about his intentions. “I think I will sit down and speak to John [Delaney]. I thought that John and myself had agreed to stay on. We’ll see.”

That hint of ambivalence would not have been there had the match not gone so catastrophically south for Ireland. The legacy of a 5-1 drubbing is not easy to shake off. The directness and inherent caution of Ireland’s play under O’Neill had long been the source of an underlying grumbling, but the return lay in the results: a generation of honest if ordinary Irish footballers were extremely competitive under O’Neill and had given the country some outstanding moments of joy. Even when they lost, the defeats tended to be narrow and hard-fought. Tuesday night was a collapse. O’Neill’s argument is that it was predicated on the unique nature of the occasion: a winner-takes-all game in which the Danes, as the away team, held the ace card of the away goal advantage. Down 2-1 at half time, O’Neill felt he had no option but to put everything he had on the roulette table.

“We were well beaten and we needed to take our chances. We scored early on in the game, which was great for us, and if we had have gotten a second goal it might have been a different story. But we have given two very poor goals away and it has changed the dynamic of the game, obviously. And it has forced us to try and score a couple of goals to get back into the game. Of course, we left ourselves physically weaker by the substitutions, but you are still hoping to get some goals.”

Wonder team

The wisdom of that decision and the consequences of other tactical risks – particularly playing James McClean up front and not including Shane Long until the contest was effectively over – will be long debated. But the most disconcerting element of the evening was watching a team famed for its defensive diligence disintegrate in a way that made 10 ordinary Danes and one virtuoso look like a wonder-team.

“I think when you are beaten in a game you have to analyse it and think that maybe you could ... of course, when you are beaten you feel as if: you’re wrong. If there is a right and a wrong, then you are wrong. And so we have been beaten and well beaten and we will have to have a genuine look at it. Yeah, it would be nice to think in hindsight that you could have done something else. I knew that substitutions would weaken us physically, but you are hoping to get a bit of creativity, obviously with Aiden [McGeady] wide and Wes [Hoolahan] maybe joining in and hoping we can create something from that. But it wasn’t to be. And of course I can look back and think you can do things. But just being well beaten in the game is obviously the major disappointment.”

Hanging up boots

What was forgotten in the overwhelming disappointment was that Tuesday night was probably a goodbye for several Irish players who have given many years of service. Ireland are effectively in a competitive hiatus now until early 2019.

“Yeah it is a long time,” O’Neill agreed.

“Of course, there are some players who will feel now that had we qualified tonight they would have continued on to the end of the campaign but may rethink now and probably bring their international careers to the end.”

He believes that the next step for Ireland is to identify and “start thinking about a younger element and try to blood them through”.

That will be relatively straightforward. It will be harder to gauge the longer-term consequences of the thrashing by Denmark. One of the key requirements for O’Neill upon taking the job was raising the morale of a group left in a deeply fragile place after the closing chapters of the Giovanni Trapattoni era and a scarring 6-1 humiliation by Germany in October 2012. Three years later Ireland’s 1-0 win and Shane Long’s famous goal against the world champions demonstrated the exceptional success of O’Neill’s impact. But that was two years ago. Now O’Neill finds himself with a squad that will have to rebound in similar fashion. He admitted that it is a process that could – and should – take some time.

“I hope it does take a length of time for them. Because as a player myself, whatever disappointments you have, it takes you some time to get over it. I think you have to come and fight back, and I think that, yeah, it is a chastening experience for us. We have been well beaten and made a lot of mistakes in the match – mistakes that, generally speaking in the campaign, have not really been something we have been doing on a regular basis. So the players will, I am hoping, take a bit of time out to have a look at it, but you are hoping that eventually it is not damaging and that they have proper careers in front of them.”

There will be ample time to heal: the road to the European Championships in 2020 begins in March 2019.

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