Liam Mackey on a year of controversy and deflation for the Irish team which finally brought the end game for Martin O’Neill.
It was a sunny September morning in Wroclaw, the day before the friendly game with Poland, and I was having a pleasant stroll through the beautiful old town when I spotted a colleague sitting up rigidly on a bench, his phone glued to his ear and a startled look on his face.
He waved me over with some urgency, handed me the phone and simply said, “have a listen to this.”
It wasn’t long before my own face was a picture of mute astonishment.
And that’s how I first heard Stephen Ward’s leaked WhatsApp message and knew, for sure, that we were not in Kansas anymore.
But maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised.
After all, what would turn into something of a GUBU year for the Irish team had begun pretty much as it meant to go on when, with the deep freeze effect of Denmark’s crushing of the nation’s World Cup dreams still chilling the bones in January, the news broke that Martin O’Neill had been having talks with Stoke City about replacing Mark Hughes, leaving his future as Ireland manager hanging in the balance.
In the end, he chose not to go and finally put pen to paper on a new contract with the FAI but if this was the first time in 2018 that the biggest headlines around the senior team were generated away from the pitch, it wouldn’t be the last.
The draw for the inaugural Nations League offered little to lift the spirits, the renewal of hostilities with (groan) Wales and (bigger groan) Denmark, mirrored in another frosty exchange between O’Neill and Tony O’Donoghue in Lausanne, the manager striking a preposterously defensive note when questioning what the RTÉ man had really meant when he’d said ‘hard luck’ to him before conducting their post-match interview after the 5-1 walloping by the Danes the previous November.
Frankly, it was long past time to move on and, thankfully, in March, there was a positive development, with Declan Rice enthusiastically coming on board for a training camp and a friendly in Turkey.
Fresh from picking up the FAI’s U19 Player of the Year award, West Ham’s rising star addressed the issue of his dual eligibility head on in sunny Anatalya: “There’s no decision to be made,” he assured reporters. And when asked if it would make any difference if he did get a call from England, he replied: “Not at all. I’m fully focused on playing with Ireland”.
Unfortunately, the game itself didn’t signify the dawn of a new era for the Irish team, the only real positives in a 1-0 defeat being Seamus Coleman’s return to action in the green shirt and an assured debut by Rice in both defence and midfield.
“An impressive performance from an impressive young man,” said Martin O’Neill afterwards.
A trip to Paris in May brought another defeat, although that was no disgrace as, amid atrocious conditions in the Stade de France, a version of the French team that would go on to win the World Cup in Russia eased to a 2-0 win. At home against the USA, John O’Shea brought the curtain down on an illustrious international career, while a little bit of history was made in the 2-1 win as Graham Burke became the first player still playing in the League of Ireland to score for his country since Ray Treacy, when himself a Hoop, had scored twice against Turkey back in 1978.
And there was a lovely bonus right at the end when Alan Judge, who had suffered for so long on the sidelines through injury, thumped the game’s decisive strike into the roof of the net to send the crowd home happy.
Unfortunately, little did we realise at the time that this standalone victory was as good as it was going to get in the whole year.
For his part, Martin O’Neill remained optimistic that there was only better to come. By the time high summer rolled around, he had clearly recovered his own mojo after a winter of discontent. When I interviewed him in Cork in August, he revealed that what had really taken him aback about the ferocity of the flak he’d shipped after the World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark was that, “it was if the Euros has never existed, as if the results leading up to the game hadn’t happened, as if we’d been a first seed team beaten by a nondescript side. But, at the end of it all, in my mind the part of coming back and not taking the Stoke job was as much to do with: did I want that to be the last result of my time here?”
And while O’Neill regularly name-checks John Robertson, I wasn’t expecting John Milton to make an appearance as the manager sought for a way to sum up what he hoped was a journey out of the darkness and back into the light.
“If I can draw a horrible, hopeless analogy,” he said with a smile, “it’s a bit like ‘Paradise Lost’. Lucifer has been sent down to Hell, he’s lost the battle in Heaven. And he looks around and thinks ‘I’ve got to get up again, I’ll have to devise another plan to get back up there to Heaven and get my place back’. It’s part of my nature to brood but the point is you cannot stay down forever. You have to get up and fight.”
In the same interview, O’Neill also made it clear that, for Ireland’s return to the competitive fray the following month against Wales in Cardiff, he would have “no qualms about putting Declan (Rice) into centre-midfield for us.”
Ah, but the best-laid plans, and all that. When the squad for that game in September was announced, Rice’s name was conspicuous by its absence, the player having had second thoughts on the brink of the match which would have secured his future with the Republic. By then too, the first reports had emerged of a training ground bust up in the summer involving Roy Keane, Harry Arter and Jon Walters, and with Arter also making himself unavailable for selection, paradise seemed a long way off as O’Neill was obliged to fight fires on a number of fronts.
And then, out on the pitch, the Welsh proceeded to send the Irish straight back to hell, the opening game of the Nations League almost a re-run of where the team had left off the previous November, as Ryan Giggs’ side toyed with the visitors to run out embarrassingly easy 4-1 winners in Cardiff.
Only one game into the new, re-jigged competitive season but, already, it was hard to avoid talking about a team and a manager in crisis.
And so, a couple of days later, we were off to Wroclaw for yet another meeting with familiar friendly foes Poland but any hopes of a routine assignment were blown away on the eve of the game by the explosive impact of the leaking of Ward’s second-hand account of the summer row.
O’Neill did his best to defuse the situation in his pre-match conference, revealing that Keane was ready to have a “reconciliation” with Arter and, in trying to deflect the focus away from his assistant, insisting that, ultimately, the buck stopped with him, as manager, for everything that happened under his watch.
Describing the controversy as an “absolute sideshow”, he said: “These confrontations took place four months ago, are surfacing now and we are going through all of that. And you know what? I will be astonished if there is not a confrontation between now and November time.”
And with what might have passed for a forced grin, he added: “If there isn’t, I’ll start it myself.”
Ironically, the game itself did succeed in putting at least a modest smile back on the face of Irish football as a new-look and inexperienced Ireland played some of their best football of the year to earn a 1-1 draw. And, yes, even if the Poles were happy to rest Robert Lewandowski and adopt a general approach which was, shall we say, somewhat lacking in urgency, it was a still a memorable night for Aiden O’Brien who scored on his debut to give the visitors the lead. But when, having defended gamely late on, Irish resistance was broken just three minutes left on the clock, it was as if to suggest that this was going to be one of those years in which, even when things went right, they would go wrong.
Depressing confirmation of that came in the home game against Wales in October, which, despite seeing a much improved Irish performance over the corresponding fixture in Cardiff, ended in a 0-1 defeat, a result which, following on from a dour scoreless draw with the Danes, also at the Aviva, took the winless run in competitive games to five.
With the FAI silent, the natives restless and the media smelling blood, O’Neill found himself almost physically backed into a corner by reporters after the loss to the Welsh but, in a manner that could have been interpreted as either defiant, determined or delusional, he insisted that he would still lead Ireland to the finals of Euro 2020.
“We’ll go through. Simple as that.”
We’ll go through to the Euro finals?
You’re saying that now?
What gives you that optimism?
“Because I’m good.”
But, as 2018 approached its sorry close, not good enough, as it turned out, to engineer a last-ditch act of escapology. The scoreboard might have been bare at the end of the 90 minutes but the sight of Northern Ireland playing all the football against the Republic in a friendly at the Aviva - on a night when Glenn Whelan could have been forgiven if he felt mainly relief at saying goodbye - arguably represented the lowest point of the year for O’Neill’s team. The eruption of boos at the final whistle was audible confirmation that those who’d bothered to make the effort to show up – and many of whom were availing of a desperate giveaway bonanza on the ticket front – had had enough.
Worse, even the booing felt somehow half-hearted, as if dismay had given way to apathy.
There was still one final act to be played out in O’Neill’s reign, however, the last gasp on the park of what had been an annus horribilis for the manager and his team, as Ireland stuttered to another scoreless draw, this time away to Denmark in freezing Aarhus. Michael Obafemi will be entitled to remember it as the night he made his senior debut but, otherwise, it was an entirely forgettable affair which gave the visiting fans little to sing about other than, in loud and graphic terms, their increasing disenchantment with John Delaney and the FAI.
Afterwards, in the stadium gym which doubled as a media room, O’Neill found himself once again fending off a barrage of reporters’ questions with his back to the wall, but still insisting that his focus was on qualification for Euro 2020. But, I asked, was he confident that his employers retained the same enthusiasm for him as he insisted he had for continuing as Ireland manager? For once, his answer seemed to betray a real sense of doubt, or at least an acknowledgement that the situation was not entirely under his control.
“I always have enthusiasm for the job,” he said, “but I’ll speak with John and we’ll see.”
He didn’t have to wait much longer to find out. Within 24 hours O’Neill was gone, along with Roy Keane and the rest of the coaching staff, Delaney subsequently revealing that the decision had actually been made after the soulless draw in Dublin with Northern Ireland.
And so the irony that the manager who began the year by staying in the job because he didn’t want a hammering by Denmark to be his last act, ended it by taking his leave on the back of another, much less traumatic, outing against the same opposition.
But, of course, it was everything that had happened in between which ultimately sealed his fate.
For all that, I reckon history will be kind to Martin O’Neill as Ireland manager, and rightly so, because the many highs of 2014/15 and 2016 under his stewardship will stay in the memory long after 2018’s no-show – and multiple sideshows – have long been forgotten.
In mitigation, he is entitled to point out that the last 12 months were always going to make for a difficult transition, as retirements and injuries depleted his squad and he experimented with inexperienced personnel and a three-at-the-back system. But well before the end, it was clear that inspiration was as lacking in the dug-out as it was absent on the pitch, that the answers were not forthcoming either from the manager or the players he sent across the white line. And, of course, when that happens, it’s the gaffer who always has to pay the penalty.
A changing of the managerial guard invariably brightens the picture but, on the basis of the year just ending, the task facing Mick McCarthy can only be described as a daunting one. Avoiding the Netherlands/Germany Group of Death in Euro 2020 by a kindly quirk of the draw might have seemed like the luckiest of breaks at the time but only those who have been paying no attention whatsoever to football this year could regard a group containing Switzerland and Denmark as some sort of golden opportunity for an Irish team which – having managed just one win and only four goals in nine games in 2018 - is at its lowest ebb since the dying days of the Trap era.
But though Mick McCarthy’s appointment was predictable enough, few saw the final twist in this year’s tale of the unexpected as Stephen Kenny came into the U21 job in the knowledge that, once Euro 2020 has run its course, he will step up to take over the senior job.
It was, to say the least of it, a novel succession strategy on the part of the FAI the pros and cons of which took up a good chunk of a recent conversation we had with another former Ireland manager. And as words like unusual and unprecedented were being exchanged, Brian Kerr couldn’t help pointing out with a grin: “We’re not far from GUBU there, are we?”
But then, in 2018, we never really were.
By Paul Kelly
1: win (2-1 vs USA)in 9 matches (D4, L4)
2: players started 8 matches (Shane Duffy, Jeff Hendrick)
2: goals scored in 4 home matches, and 2 scored in 5 away matches (average strike rate 0.4)
3: clean sheets (all kept by Darren Randolph)
4: goalscorers (Graham Burke, Alan Judge, Shaun Williams, and Aiden O’Brien)
4: formations used: 3-5-1-1 (5 times), 3-5-2 (twice), 4-5-1 and 4-4-1-1 (once each)
6: matches in which Ireland failed to score
10: goals conceded (average 1.1 per game)
11%: Ireland’s win rate in 2018 is lowest since 1985, when Eoin Hand was sacked (also 11%).
12: new caps awarded (Declan Rice, Matt Doherty, Scott Hogan, Derrick Williams, Shaun Williams, Graham Burke, Enda Stevens, Darragh Lenihan, Callum Robinson, Aiden O’Brien, Ronan Curtis, Michael Obafemi).
37: players used
397: minutes since Ireland’s last goal (by Aiden O’Brien vs Poland, September 11)
697: minutes completed by Shane Duffy, Ireland’s most-used player of the year