Martin O’Neill is far from a one-trick pony but his team is, writes Brendan O’Brien.
Two World Cups lost in under 24 hours.
The stretch from Tuesday evening through to Wednesday afternoon was a bad one for Irish sporting ambitions, but it would make far more sense to frame the Republic of Ireland’s failure to qualify for Russia 2018 through the prism of the shellacking of South Africa in the Aviva Stadium last Saturday rather than those in London two days ago.
True, comparing sports can be an odious affair. Most comparisons seem to be launched from the dock that is social media with adherents to one code wallowing in schadenfreude over the failure of another on a big stage. And so, cue the inevitable trickle of scorn that appeared on Twitter when Denmark ran riot in Ballsbridge.
None of that is to say that there can’t be a cross-pollination of ideas. Or lessons.
Intra-sport education isn’t all that big in these parts but the likes of Australia and New Zealand have long cottoned onto the benefits of people from various codes putting their heads together. So it was hard to watch Ireland’s rugby and football teams play on the same patch over four days and not critique them in tandem.
You can argue about the merits of the respective players and opposition, and scream about how rugby is far more tailored to structures and game plans than football, but what nobody can debate is that one Irish team took to the field with a solid framework and the intent to dominate the game while the other had no Plan B and ended the game in rag order.
So much has been made of Martin O’Neill’s decision to take off both of his defensive midfielders at half-time and allow Christian Eriksen make hay. Even the manager admitted afterwards that it probably proved to be more of a hindrance than a help to his side as they failed miserably to get their heads around a 2-1 deficit.
If those changes were a ploy decided upon long before the second leg had kicked off then he was guilty of a shocking naivety. He had five weeks between Cardiff and Copenhagen to contemplate what he could do if Ireland fell behind. Was this really the solution he had come up with as he war-gamed the two legs against the Danes in his mind?
And if this was something that he simply landed upon in the bowels of the stadium as a nation held its breath, then it was a complete dereliction of duty. A case of, as his current assistant manager once put it: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
It follows on from a handful of weeks when O’Neill’s methods of management came in for considerable analysis with former players painting the picture of a man who is light on detail in training and tactics and one who can leave it to the last minute to reveal his starting XI. O’Neill added to that conversation himself with an interesting interview with the Daily Telegraph last week which promised to reveal the “secrets of his success”.
It detailed again just how indebted he remains to Brian Clough under whom he worked with Nottingham Forest at a time when the English club was among Europe’s best. The article noted O’Neill’s irritation with a perception his Ireland team does not have any clear tactical blueprint and the man himself said he had never been chained to one approach during his time in the dugout. Age Hareide, Denmark’s manager, said as much on Monday when referencing his Celtic side’s attacking bent.
O’Neill has used different formations in his time with Ireland and his readiness to be bold with player selections was evident again last weekend when he dropped Callum O’Dowda in for a competitive start, but the return leg exposed just how constrained the manager and Ireland have become because of their self-imposed defensive straitjacket. Among the many references to Clough in that Telegraph article was his mentor’s ability to mould a cult of the underdog but never in such a way as to make his players feel inadequate.
“The best managers do that,” O’Neill said. A skilled man-manager, he has nonetheless managed to undermine his team through the absence of any attacking strategy. Like Giovanni Trapattoni before him, he does not trust his players in that way.
O’Neill reminded people on Tuesday that he had lost just four of his 24 competitive games in charge of Ireland and he is entitled to thrust his CV in the faces of us doubting Thomases, as he did again this week. He is far from a one-trick pony but his team is.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved