Ken Early: Ireland end up as consolation prize for O’Neill
Most supporters were happy to draw a line under manager’s time in charge
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill : “Painful series of bad home performances ended in the disaster of the playoff against Denmark, which was, quite simply, one of the worst defeats in the history of Irish football.” Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters
So it seems that Martin O’Neill will be staying on as Ireland manager, at least until the next job offer from a mediocre English club arrives to test his loyalty. Maybe by then the FAI will have persuaded O’Neill to sign the contract they claimed to have agreed with him a couple of months ago, so that Ireland will at least be due some compensation if somebody else tries to poach the manager. Then again, given the mass indifference with which the story of O’Neill’s possible departure was greeted by Ireland fans, maybe the phantom contract arrangement suits everybody: the last thing anyone wants to do is deter potential suitors.
Once it became clear last week that Stoke’s number one choice to take over from Mark Hughes was Quique Sánchez Flores, it immediately became complicated for O’Neill to accept any subsequent offer from them. He was supposedly the first choice of Stoke’s elderly chairman, Peter Coates, but not of the younger directors, including Coates’s son John, who have more responsibility in the day-to-day running of the club. He would have been going there as the consolation prize, which would have been difficult for a football man of his standing to accept.
The Daily Telegraph last night broke the story that O’Neill had turned down Stoke’s offer, adding that one big reason for his decision is that he did not want to break the verbal agreement he had made with the FAI. But if this verbal agreement really was so sacred, why not confirm as much last week, when Stoke’s interest in taking him first became widely known? Transparency then could have spared a lot of awkwardness later, as many observers will now naturally conclude that he would have been keen to join Stoke if they hadn’t insulted him by approaching Sánchez Flores first.
Instead O’Neill will carry on and now it’s Ireland that gets to feel like the consolation prize. But after the events of the last few days, both O’Neill and the Ireland fans know that most of the supporters were happy to draw a line under his time in charge of the team. There may be those casual fans who are mystified as to why this is so. Haven’t results under O’Neill been good, with one tournament reached and some big sides beaten along the way?
It’s true that there have been good results and great nights, with Germany and Italy defeated in what for them were loseable matches, and Austria beaten in style on a freezing evening in Vienna to end a 29-year run without an away win against a higher-ranked side. It’s true that Ireland reached the World Cup playoffs after winning the last group match away to Wales, who were admittedly without their injured superhero Gareth Bale.
Yet it is not true that “we were fourth favourite to get out of the group behind Serbia, Austria, Wales, everyone gave us no chance,” as Jon Walters asserted on the BBC yesterday. We were fourth seeds, yes, but the idea that everyone gave Ireland no chance? Who could feel confident enough of Ireland’s uselessness to give them “no chance” of qualifying ahead of countries like Serbia, Austria and Wales?
O’Neill said on many occasions that Ireland’s group was among the toughest in Europe, but how can you seriously argue that of a group that included Wales as the number one seeds, and Austria as number two? Ireland’s group was the only one in which neither the first- nor second-seeded teams managed to qualify for the World Cup. The truth is that Ireland were blessed with the draw: it was the kindest World Cup group we’d had in years. As it happened, only one team from this toughest of qualification groups will play in Russia, and you wonder how many people will be betting heavily on Serbia powering through to the latter stages.
It was the kind of total defeat that is Kryptonite to managerial mystique
The other problem is that, although the win in Cardiff was a good night, the bigger picture is that Ireland could have qualified easily if their home form hadn’t been so dire throughout the group. They lost to Serbia and failed to beat either Wales or Austria. They played so poorly in these matches that it started to look as though they didn’t know what they were doing.
This painful series of bad home performances ended in the disaster of the playoff against Denmark, which was, quite simply, one of the worst defeats in the history of Irish football. With Ireland 2-1 down at half-time after some bad individual mistakes, O’Neill decided to take off both of his defensive-minded midfielders, Harry Arter and David Meyler, and in the process opened up the area in front of Ireland’s defence for Denmark’s best player, Christian Eriksen, to run riot.
On Denmark’s bench they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. “I was surprised, they gave a lot of space in centre of midfield for Eriksen, so thank you very much for giving him space,” was the comment from the incredulous Denmark manager, Åge Hareide.
It was the kind of total defeat that is Kryptonite to managerial mystique. The word is that O’Neill is excited about building a new Ireland team around an emerging generation of young players. The problem is that after all that terrible football in 2017 culminated in humiliation by Hareide and Eriksen, not many fans still believe he is the man for the job. O’Neill used to talk about missing the day-to-day involvement of club management, and it’s no longer just he who is wistfully wondering whether a return to that might be best for all concerned.