O’Neill still bullishly confident he can change Ireland’s form
Manager believes he has been unfairly criticised and is still the man for the Ireland job
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill looks on during the Nations League draw with Denmark in Aarhus. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
But, if the manager sounded noticeably less defiant than a month ago in the wake of the Wales game, he still seems determined that he will be the one to turn things around when the game gathers for the games of the European Championship qualifying campaign in March.
As frustration with those performances grows amongst fans, however; quite a few others are not so sure.
After a run of 11 games that has included just one victory the manager’s mood is very much changed since the occasion of his last competitive win – in Cardiff more than a year ago.
He still complains that he has been unfairly criticised, tracing what he sees as a generally negative tone back to draw with Scotland in June 2015 after which many observers clearly felt that qualification would prove beyond the Irish team. He seems not to have noticed the acclaim he received when after overseeing the two legged defeat of Bosnia and Herzegovina and then getting his side to the second round of the European Championships.
It is all academic though; he is the first to admit that it is a results business and the last of his good ones was quite some time ago. O’Neill insists that his record speaks for itself but his recent one has been the strongest case for a change.
Whether FAI chief executive John Delaney feels it is time for O’Neill to go is an altogether different matter. The association’s chief executive would have to engineer a parting that didn’t leave him with an awful lot of egg on his face given the scale of the new contracts.
When Brian Kerr was let go, Delaney cited the obvious lack of fear amongst the Swiss as they came to Dublin in October 2005. But who precisely is likely fear this Ireland team if they are drawn with them in a qualifying group on the second of next month?
The two previous group campaigns he oversaw can still be seen as providing the basis for allowing O’Neill to stick around, though; at least for the start of the campaign. He has made the play-offs on each occasion and won or drew three of the four games. The other – the 5-1 defeat – was awful but he and his supporters do have a point when they point out that once he was chasing the game, the margin of defeat really didn’t matter. There is also the matter of the quality contained in the current squad.
O’Neill has not done quite so well as he likes to believe, however. He has talked about Euro 2016 being Ireland’s best ever performance at a major tournament which those who participated in 1988, when the tournament was one third of the size, might give him an argument over and he has gotten it into his head that Ireland were fourth seeds in the qualifiers for France when in fact they were a second ranked team with Poland in pot three and the Scots in four.
Nor has he been shy about claiming a share of the credit for the FAI’s annual claim of record season ticket sales – 17,000 seems to be the current figure – but there is no mention of the prices having been cut over time or the enormous numbers of tickets that are routinely given away free. The rumour mill puts the number at 15,000 or 16,000 for the recent Denmark game and even if that is an exaggeration, the number is clearly very substantial with tales of schoolboy clubs almost overwhelmed by the task of getting people to take up their allocation.
Even he had to admit after Northern Ireland that the ones who had paid in had been short changed. His team’s abysmally poor showing in that game was particularly damaging.
But his huge salary hike makes the prospect of failure in the Euros campaign almost unthinkable. The management team between them now cost the FAI in the region of €3 million annually, or €12 million over the course of the four-year cycle of the Europeans which brought in just about that in gross prize money two years ago. So if Ireland make it to every Euros then the association is breaking even on him, Roy Keane and the rest of them. But there are a lot of other people looking for a cut of that pie and World Cup qualification feels like a pipe dream on current form.
As it stands, even when Ireland win, they very rarely play the sort of football that O’Neill actually claims to want but then it has been clear for a long time that that is the icing on the qualification cake out at Abbotstown. The case for his defence may be just about strong enough but if he does get the opportunity to see through what he insists is a period of transition and the campaign starts badly, it is hard to imagine him bothering to cite his longer term record as Delaney shows him the door.