But when he struggled to emulate that success next time around, it was bye bye Mick.
Next, Brian Kerr came and went. After that, it was the brief and dispiriting turn of Steve Staunton.
Then along came Giovanni Trapattoni, who finally returned us to the promised land of big tournament football at his second attempt. But when we got there only to discover that among other disappointments, we couldn’t live with one of the best teams in football history, the revelation was received as proof positive that Trap was not the man to unleash Irish football’s inner Barcelona. And so, after one more effort during which he and his team gradually ground to a halt, it was time also to say ‘arrivederci’ to the grand old man.
But, not to worry, because waiting in the wings was the dream team of Martin ‘n’ Keano. Except that midway through their inaugural campaign, the dream is already turning into — as they say in football — a bit of a ’mare, so much so that, barring a miraculous recovery, it’s already beginning to look like the long goodbye to them is underway as well. After which it will be time for the next managerial messiah to come in and get us out of a mess.
Or not, as the case may be.
You’d have to wonder at what point the Euro will drop and people will begin to seriously consider the notion that while, yes, the gaffer has a very important role to play at the helm of a football team, it might just be that it’s the quality of the players he has at his disposal which ultimately makes the critical difference between success and failure?
Right now, Martin O’Neill is scarcely living up to his billing as the kind of manager who can inspire over-achievement and turn an average football team into more than the sum of their parts. But his players are hardly helping his cause.
Exhibit A: Seamus Coleman. The Donegal man is probably the most exciting Irish talent to emerge in the last five years and, from the first whistle on Saturday, it looked like he was finally going to deliver a performance in the green shirt to match his most thrilling displays in the blue of Everton. Getting forward up the right flank at every opportunity, he was a constant menace with his mix of direct running and trickery, repeatedly getting into threatening positions to deliver the killer ball.
And then? Nothing. Whether wildly over-hitting his crosses or seeing his attempts at low, drilled balls easily cut out at the near post, Coleman entirely failed to match build-up with end product. The result was that Ireland, a team which always struggles to create goal chances against decent opposition, were denied a handful of potentially rich opportunities to at least threaten the Scotland goal if, not indeed, breach it.
To highlight Coleman’s deficiencies on the day is not to belittle his outstanding qualities as a player but merely to make the point that if one of our very best players doesn’t perform to the very maximum of his ability, that is not something this otherwise ordinary team can take in its stride.
Similarly, the much-hyped James McCarthy, after one of his more impressive displays for Ireland in the first half, became less and less influential in the second which, after Scotland’s sucker-punch equaliser was the period in the game when the home side most needed flashes of inspiration to go with their usual buckets of perspiration.
It was Wes Hoolahan, of course, who continued to provide most of the former, only for O’Neill to haul him off at a point when Ireland’s need for some guile to go with the guts was never greater. And the manager, I’d suggest, also got it wrong leaving Shane Long with just 10 minutes in which to try and punish a tiring Scottish rearguard with his pace and power, if not necessarily some clinical finishing.
But, again, the fact that this game ended in a draw rather than a win, must come back to the players, and especially the starting XI. More or less untroubled after a dominant first-half display, they promptly fell prey to the old Irish habit of cheaply surrendering their advantage.
The question now is whether Ireland have already played to their limits or whether it is still within them — or the motivational powers of O’Neill — to find a level they could yet achieve what would be nothing less than historic wins at home to Germany or away to Poland. Or possibly both. Not so much a tall order, you would have to say, as one of stratospheric proportions.
Given; Coleman, O’Shea, Wilson, Brady; Walters, Hendrick, Whelan (McClean 68), McCarthy, Hoolahan (R Keane 73); Murphy (Long 80).
Marshall; Hutton, Martin, Mulgrew, Forsyth; Maloney, Morrison, Brown (McArthur 85), Ritchie (Anya HT), Naismith (Berra 90+2); Fletcher.
Nicola Rizzoli (Italy).