Martin O'Neill must manage Ireland's 'short blanket' dilemma
THE verdict was brutal in its simplicity when Denmark boss Age Hareide paused to consider the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup misery.
Asked to assess his old friend Martin O’Neill’s tactical plan to edge the Republic past his team and into next summer’s finals, Hareide was to the point.
“If you lose 5-1, you are not successful,” he said.
A campaign based on defensive resilience and the ability to finish strongly ended in chaos at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday as Ireland abandoned their tried and trusted methods and were found wanting when presented with a different challenge.
O’Neill, like Giovanni Trapattoni before him, has lacked world-class stars and needed to adopt an approach which is far from easy on the eye, but has been largely successful during his four-year reign.
The 65-year-old, who took Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals, maybe cannot win in some respects. If he sets up his team to frustrate opponents, they lack a cutting edge; add more creativity and the defence leaks like a sieve.
Rafael Benitez often uses the analogy of ‘a short blanket’ when describing his Newcastle team, the message being you can keep either your head or your feet warm, but not both at the same time, and O’Neill has a similar issue.
Hareide played with former Northern Ireland international O’Neill at Manchester City and Norwich, and was diplomatic when asked about the disparity between his old team-mate’s attack-minded approach as a player and his conservatism as Ireland boss.
“I think it’s a matter of finding a way,” Hareide said.
“I knew Martin as an attacking outside-right at Nottingham Forest and a central midfielder when I played with him. He wanted to see a lot of the ball and play all the time. He had a very attacking team (as manager) at Celtic, although the other teams weren’t really on the same level as Celtic. But I think he has found his way with Ireland.”
O’Neill’s way saw the Republic reach the World Cup play-offs despite being seeded behind Serbia, Wales and Austria in Group D. It was an achievement that was largely founded on their success on the road, where they beat Moldova and also won in Vienna and Cardiff alongside draws with the Serbians and Georgia.
But it was at home where they struggled with only Georgia and Moldova losing at the Aviva Stadium, and there lies the problem.
When asked to soak up pressure and then exploit the desperation of their hosts, they prosper; handed the task of taking the game to their opponents, they struggle.
Wes Hoolahan (below) is the poster boy for O’Neill’s most vociferous critics. Arguably his most naturally gifted player, the Norwich midfielder started only four of the 12 games Ireland played in the campaign and appeared in two more as a substitute.
For the manager’s detractors, that is simply a waste of a rich talent, but O’Neill sees 35-year-old Hoolahan as the man to unlock a packed defence rather than trade blows in a free-for-all.
In part, his point was proved on Tuesday evening when at 2-1 down, he sent on Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady for the more defensively-minded David Meyler and Harry Arter and saw his team ripped to shreds.
That was not necessarily the fault of the newcomers, more the fact that Ireland could not cope without the additional security and were repeatedly picked off by the ruthless Danes.
O’Neill has verbally agreed to stay on and seemed nonplussed at the suggestion that he might reconsider in the wake of a heavy defeat.
So as O’Neill prepares to remain at the helm, he will have to find that balance with no sign of a longer blanket at his disposal.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND TALKING POINTS AFTER WORLD CUP DREAM ENDS
STICK OR TWIST?
AS far as Martin O'Neill is concerned, he, Roy Keane and the rest of the coaching staff have a verbal agreement to continue for the Euro 2020 qualification campaign. Pressed as to whether he may reconsider as a result of the 5-1 drubbing by the Danes, O'Neill said he would "have a real think about it", but instantly defended his record as manager to suggest he does not intend to go anywhere.
FULL-BACK Cyrus Christie has performed admirably since being asked to step into the sizeable boots of Seamus Coleman following his double leg fracture in March. However, Coleman is one of O'Neill's class acts and his understated, yet inspirational, brand of captaincy will hand the squad a major boost for the next campaign.
THE summer of 2016 saw Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick emerge as senior international players in front of a continental audience as they lit up Ireland's Euros adventure in France. Both struggled to hit those heights consistently during World Cup qualification and a return to that kind of form would represent a significant boost.
O'NEILL has repeatedly bemoaned the fact that he inherited now-retired record goalscorer Robbie Keane at 33 and not as a 26 or 27-year-old. Jonathan Walters, whose goals helped to take the Republic to France, was injured for the conclusion of the campaign, while Daryl Murphy scored three goals, but with Shane Long having not found the back of the net for club or country since February, winger James McClean was top-scorer on four, and that is an area which requires significant improvement.
END OF AN ERA?
JOHN O'Shea won his 117th senior cap for Ireland in the 0-0 home draw with Wales in March and was an unused substitute for the final seven games of the campaign. The Sunderland defender, a Champions League and serial Premier League winner with Manchester United, was persuaded to delay his retirement from international football by O'Neill before the start of the campaign, but at 36, his time has almost certainly come.
HOW THE REPUBLIC OF IRELAND SQUAD COULD CHANGE FOLLOWING THEIR WORLD CUP EXIT
The Republic of Ireland's World Cup exit could signal something of a watershed for a series of players.
With 117 senior caps to his name, O'Shea has been a stalwart for Ireland since making his debut against Croatia in August 2001. He was persuaded to prolong his international career after the Euro 2016 finals as manager Martin O'Neill sought to retain his vast experience, but the last of his three appearances of the campaign came in March.
A conundrum for both O'Neill and predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni, Hoolahan is a fans' favourite who has struggled to win a regular place through his international career. He has 43 caps to his name but at 34, time is not on his side.
Another 34-year-old, Nottingham Forest striker Murphy has come to the fore on the international stage late in his career. He has repeatedly put his body on the line for Ireland, finally breaking his duck for his country with a late equaliser in the 2-2 draw in Serbia in September last year, but is getting to the age where the lone frontman role is a big ask.
O'Dowda's rise to prominence has been such that, a little less than 18 months after winning his first cap in a friendly defeat by Belarus as a League Two player at Oxford, he was handed a start in the first leg of the play-off against Denmark. Now playing his football in the Sky Bet Championship with Bristol City, the 22-year-old appears to have a bright future with Irelandahead of him.
Maguire completed a remarkable journey when he was handed his first senior cap as a late substitute in last month's 2-0 qualifier victory over Moldova. Two years earlier, he could not get a game for League of Ireland side Dundalk, but having joined Cork City and earned himself a move to Sky Bet Championship Preston, the 23-year-old has captured O'Neill's attention.
It is a concern for the Ireland management team that so few of their players are currently plying their trade in the Premier League. One who has had a taste of that this season is 18-year-old West Ham midfielder Declan Rice, who lined up for Ireland's Under-21s in their 2-1 defeat in Norway on Tuesday and is rated highly within the Republic set-up.