Like the journalists who were present at the time, I’m sure many people were pinching themselves when they read of Martin O’Neill’s fairly breathtaking show of defiance following Tuesday’s 0-1 defeat to Wales at the Aviva.
“I’m good…I’ll win…Ireland will qualify for the Euros… Simple as that.”
Taking him at his word, this wasn’t a man raging against the dying of the light. This was a man apparently utterly convinced that this darkest hour in October — at least even he had to agree that what he is now facing is his toughest challenge as Ireland manager — would herald a bright new dawn in March.
To be unkind about it, O’Neill declaring himself a winner in the immediate aftermath of a home defeat to Wales which had just made it five competitive games for Ireland without tasting victory — and in two of which they had endured crushing defeats — felt a bit like Ozymandias still proclaiming his greatness from amid a pile of rubble in the middle of an empty desert.
“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
Ozy was long since out of the job by the time the boy Shells nailed his hubris and assured him of real immortality, of course, whereas Martin O’Neill is in the much more advantageous, though scarcely envious, position of still actually occupying the seat of power.
And for that, ironically, he can probably thank a Nations League which has proved unrewarding in almost every other respect for the manager and his players. If international football was still playing by the old calendar and Ireland’s results were as bad as they have been in the last few competitive games then, irrespective of the financial hit involved, the FAI would probably be putting out a statement ‘round about now thanking him for his great service and wishing him well in his future endeavours.
But the in-between status of the Nations League — competitive, yes, and therefore with more at stake than ye olde meaningless friendlies yet still not the be-all and end-all in terms of Euros qualification — has afforded the Derryman just enough wriggle room to be able to speak of this being a period of transition and rebuilding before the serious business begins, as he likes to say, “in earnest”, in about six months’ time.
He’s certainly right about the team being in transition. Already one of the less distinguished Irish sides in terms of outstanding individual talent, retirement (most especially Wes Hoolahan’s), injuries and the blooding of new players have further complicated the challenge of getting things back on track after the World Cup dream was so spectacularly derailed last November.
But it’s a much more troubling transition — that from a team which was hard to beat to one that has become even harder to watch — which really has the manager under scrutiny as never before and increased the clamour for a fresh face and fresh thinking in the dugout.
Not that Ireland were always easy on the eye when, to his eternal credit, O’Neill was overseeing some of the most momentous victories, not just of his own time in charge, but in the history of the Irish game. Those magical wins over Germany at home, Italy at the Euros, and Austria and Wales away, will always stand as vindication of his appointment as national team manager five years ago. And, to be fair, the performances in Euro 2016, the defeat to Belgium apart, also suggested that the unique circumstances of tournament football could enhance the quality of the football played by the Irish team.
The problem, of course, is that those days and nights already feel like they belong to the aforementioned historical record, glorious but increasingly sepia-tinted memories to file alongside the most ancient of days: Stuttgart and Genoa and Giants Stadium and Ibaraki.
We’ve already passed the first anniversary of the last of the great nights under O’Neill, the away win in Cardiff. That was certainly one of those occasions when the end justified the means, Ireland’s one real moment of inspiration in the 90 minutes crowning a performance of relentless graft but precious little guile. But, understandably, all that was forgotten in the euphoria of victory.
And then came a night in November. Any hope that, 10 months later, the inauguration of the Nations League would see Ireland erase some of the pain of the Danish pasting was obliterated by the carnage in Cardiff, making for a competitive double whammy which still casts the biggest cloud over O’Neill’s management and his conviction that he can turn things around.
He is not actually wrong to say there were positives which could be taken from Tuesday’s defeat to Wales, even if most were to be found in the first 45 minutes, including the performances of Callum Robinson and Jeff Hendrick and, more generally, some tentatively encouraging signs that the side was finally getting to grips with the attacking possibilities of 3-5-2.
But just as the deficiencies in the 1-0 World Cup qualifying win in Wales were eclipsed by victory, so the modest improvements in Dublin on Tuesday were eclipsed by defeat. Because old Trap wasn’t wrong to insist that, in the final analysis, it’s the result that counts.
Speaking of which, here’s a less than comforting thought: next up in the Nations League, it’s Denmark away.
Yes, having Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady and perhaps even James McCarthy available again would certainly be good news for Ireland. But, then again, the availability of Christian Eriksen for Denmark would not.
On the basis of where we are now, even with the best will in the world it’s next to impossible to see how the game in Aarhus might provide a turning point which would be enough both to undo the recent damage on and off the pitch as well as raise expectations for further sustained progress when qualification for the Euros begins next year.
So it seems that pretty much all we have to go on right now is Martin O’Neill’s own unassailable conviction that he can reprise his greatest hits as Ireland manager.
In the unlikely event that he pulls it off, it would be one hell of a redemption song.