The shock of the familiar

So it’s business as usual, as in business unusual, across the Irish Sea, the fledgling new Premier League season having already sent the back pages into overdrive with LVG’s nightmare start at Old Trafford, Liverpool prepared to swap frying pan for fire as Balotelli replaces Suarez and, simply stinking the whole place out, the Malky Mackay scandal.

The shock of the familiar

Meanwhile, back on this side of the water, it’s business as usual as in, well, business as usual, Martin O’Neill unveiling a first Euros qualifying squad which, with just a couple of obvious exceptions, could have been picked at any point by Giovanni Trapattoni during his last unhappy campaign in charge. And even the most obvious of those exceptions – Andy Reid – could hardly be described as a fresh face on the Irish scene.

Just short of 10 months after the appointment of O’Neill and Roy Keane was hailed in many quarters as the solution to all the problems which had generally been attributed to Trap, the prevailing sense of status quo around the Irish squad hardly chimes with the initial widespread belief that, with the changing of the managerial guard, we were all set to escape the age of Italian austerity and, with one bound, soar through qualifying to take our rightful place on the playing fields of France in two years’ time.

Drawing now world champions Germany somewhat softened our collective cough in that regard, as did a largely backs to wall performance against fellow group rivals Poland in a friendly in Poznan. And there has also been the slowly growing realisation that, with Scotland showing strong signs of recovery under Gordon Strachan, there is really little or nothing to choose between ourselves and our Celtic brethren when it comes to claims on second or even third place in the final group table. Throw in a frankly dismal record of one win in seven friendly games under the new management, and the penny appears to have finally dropped that what ailed Ireland at the finals of Euro 2012 and then throughout much of Trapattoni’s last campaign in charge, might have had much more to do with deep-rooted structural faults than just a misguided manager’s conservative tactics and sometimes eccentric selection policy.

And by deep-rooted structural faults, I mainly mean a playing pool which, contrary to the hype we have imported from the Premier League, is closer to ordinary than extraordinary on the international spectrum. By the time of the Euro finals in Poland, our best players were already in the twilight zone of their careers and, two years on, only Robbie Keane of Ireland’s once golden generation is around and, in tribute to his still flaring nose for a goal, fully entitled to retain his place in the starting line-up next campaign.

Experienced heads and class acts like Damien Duff, Richard Dunne, Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane have been and gone, the questions posed by their absence still in search of conclusive answers. Can James McCarthy up his game to become a real figure of authority in the Irish midfield? Can Darron Gibson kick on again after his long injury lay-off? Can Robbie Brady or James McClean or Anthony Pilkington take up where the Duffer, in his prime, left off? Can Aiden McGeady add consistency and end product to his bag of tricks? Can Shane Long or Anthony Stokes or Daryl Murphy – or whoever you’re having yourself – challenge Robbie as the go-to goal-getter? And, a particularly urgent one: who, now, is going to fill that very large Richard Dunne-shaped hole at the heart of the Irish defence?

There are, of course, reasons to be cheerful, not least in the emergence of Seamus Coleman as a genuinely class act, as well as Martin O’ Neill’s willingness to accommodate Wes Hoolahan’s superior creative talent in the team. The news that Andy Reid is a doubt for the upcoming games is a blow because, if he can maintain the wonderful form he rediscovered at Nottingham Forest last season, he too offers the kind of invention and imagination which were qualities too often conspicuous by their absence under the previous regime.

Yet, once again, we’re hardly talking the shock of the new here. But criticism of the Irish management’s failure to thus far excavate fresh talent is surely misplaced. O’Neill and Keane have been ubiquitous in English football grounds in monitoring existing options and seeking out new talent while, behind the scenes – as the Jack Grealish saga confirms – they would appear to be doing their best to make the granny rule bend in their favour.

But since they simply can’t magic players out of thin air, the overwhelming sense of familiarity surrounding O’Neill’s first competitive squad would appear to confirm that, at least for now, this is about as good as it gets.

And so we have the intriguing prospect of the new management being dealt pretty much the same hand as the old one – indeed, in the absence of Dunne, arguably even a weaker one. How Martin O’Neill plays it will be fascinating and a test too of the belief, so often expressed by players who’ve worked with him, that he “comes alive” when kick-off is nigh.

For an inordinately long time, a manager accustomed to the weekly, even daily, high stakes dynamic of club football has had to endure the ‘phony war’ of a protracted international build-up. One presumes he has learned a lot in that time but we only really begin to learn about his credentials as an international manager when the first whistle of qualifying blows in Tbilisi next month.

Right now, there are still more questions than answers. Is a team only as good as its management? Or is the management only as good as its team? We’re about to find out.

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Saturday, April 10, 2021

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