New competition, new anthem, new trophy — but more than a touch of the same old story for Martin O’Neill and Ireland in Lausanne yesterday.
Uefa were happy to hail the draw for the inaugural Nations League as an historic day for European football but when the balls came out of the pot it was a case of history — and recent history at that — repeating itself for the Irish.
Wales and Denmark — as O’Neill himself put it, “déjà vu, isn’t it, really?”
At least there will be a new man at the helm for the Welsh when they renew not so old acquaintance with Ireland in the autumn.
So expect plenty of column inches in the build-up to be devoted to the prospect of Man United heroes Giggsy and Keano regarding each other from opposing dugouts.
And even allowing for widespread scepticism about the merits of the new tournament, Ireland v Wales is an attractively fan-friendly fixture for both sets of supporters, which should ensure a decent match atmosphere at the games in Cardiff and Dublin in, respectively, September and October.
As for locking horns again with Denmark, well, this will be spun as an opportunity for revenge and redemption for the Gael but, in truth, it would be a surprise if O’Neill didn’t inwardly wince when the pairing materialised in the SwissTech Convention Centre yesterday.
After all, it was the calamitous 5-1 defeat to the Danes at the Aviva last November which not only ended Irish hopes of going to Russia but, by his own admission, prompted a shell-shocked O’Neill to embark on a period of “reflection” which, at one point, appeared to see him on the brink of taking up a new job at Stoke, before he decided to sign on for another term with the Republic.
Quite how close he came to leaving was not a subject on which he was prepared to be drawn yesterday.
Last week, John Delaney said that he believed O’Neill had turned down “a bigger offer” from Stoke, the FAI chief executive adding: “When you see him next week, let him talk to you about what offers were made to him and the extent of those. Let him tell you that.”
This seemed to come as news to O’Neill who told reporters in Lausanne that he thought Delaney had already “explained it all anyway.” And when pressed to clarify what made him reject other offers and stay with Ireland, he suggested that this was a subject “for another day”.
What day would that be? The 12th of never, perhaps?
To the extent that O’Neill did finally break his silence on the recent saga yesterday, it was mainly about pointing out that he hasn’t in fact gone anywhere and seeking to underline his renewed commitment to the Irish job. He hadn’t broken any rules in terms of his original verbal agreement, he said. His record shows he is not one to “take himself off at a moment’s notice”.
He had “numerous opportunities” to move on but chose to stay. Outside interest surely reflects well on the work he has done as Irish manager.
Players are players and would not have been unsettled about the uncertainty around his position. And, anyway, now that everything has been resolved, he is ”delighted” to be where he is.
And so we are, as they say, where we are: an Irish team under the management of Martin O’Neill, with Roy Keane and the rest of the coaching staff at his side, looking ahead to matches against Wales and Denmark. Déjà vu is right.
What matters from now on, of course, is that the real talking is done on the training pitch and then on the field of play, the only places where Martin O’Neill can truly convince that he continues to be the right man to lead the Irish team forward.
In defiance of the sceptics, he can legitimately point to some massive results and magical nights for the Boys in Green under his stewardship.
However as he contemplates the protracted journey through the Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifying which now lies ahead — and the squad rebuilding which will be part of that process — he will know better than anyone that, ultimately, the only way to shake off that nagging sense of déjà vu will be by conjuring up a far happier ending than we had last time around.
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