Republic of Ireland: a year of disaster, confusion and a little bit of optimism
A DISASTROUS year for the Republic of Ireland ended in confusion, with perhaps a thin coating of optimism.
The disaster was, of course, Martin O’Neill’s faltering last year in charge where the performances of the side slid to unacceptable levels.
The confusion came courtesy of the FAI, who couldn’t decide between Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny as O’Neill’s successor, so they appointed both of them.
In a decidedly surreal move, McCarthy was handed a fixed two-year term that will come to a close at end of Euro 2020 with interim U21 boss Kenny taking over.
The optimism was derived from the very fact there was a managerial change because all hope had been lost under O’Neill.
Despite last year’s horrendous 5-1 World Cup play-off defeat at home to Denmark, O’Neill’s work up to that point fully merited another contract.
The style of football always made for painful viewing but the Derryman had stockpiled enough positive results prior to that Danish nightmare to warrant a crack at the World Cup qualifiers.
But there was always a nagging sense O’Neill should have walked away, safe in the knowledge that he’d delivered a Euro 2016 finals place and got as far as the World Cup play-offs.
His stock would have been still high enough to perhaps land a lower-ranked English Premiership club job and the 5-1 loss to Denmark could have been written off as an aberration.
However, O'Neill staying on for another campaign proved the wrong decision.
As the year trundled along, O’Neill’s market value took a pummelling.
The wheels well and truly came off in Cardiff back in September when Wales walloped the visitors 4-1.
It was one of the worst displays in living memory from an Irish side.
Technically speaking, Republic sides of the past were often second best, but they generally managed to nullify the opposition with their renowned warrior spirit and collective work ethic. But that night in Cardiff was different. The Irish had no discernible strategy and displayed little or no desire.
The training ground bust-up between Roy Keane and Harry Arter - dating back to their friendly match with USA in the summer even though it didn’t become public knowledge until days before the Wales game in Cardiff – undoubtedly played a role in the team’s decline.
Stephen Ward’s ‘leaked’ WhatsApp voicemail reaffirmed the notion that all was not well inside the Irish camp with Keane clashing with Arter and Jonathan Walters.
It left O’Neill defending his assistant manager on too many occasions.
Clearly, the demoralising defeat in Cardiff was the beginning of the end for O’Neill.
The side improved slightly for the Poland friendly a few days later but in their next four games they couldn’t muster a goal.
The last straw for the FAI was the scoreless draw with Northern Ireland in Dublin on November 15.
The two ‘Irelands’ boast roughly the same amount of quality in their ranks and yet the north were by far the better side on the night, which was another nail in the Republic of Ireland manager’s coffin.
If Michael O’Neill could implement a solid, enterprising game plan with meagre resources, why couldn’t his namesake?
A sizeable contingent of the Irish media made the arduous trip to Aarhus as the side rounded off their ill-fated Nations League campaign against Denmark, but the die was already cast.
FAI chief executive John Delaney later revealed that the board had decided O’Neill would be sacked regardless of the result and performance in Aarhus.
The fact the game ended in another dispiriting scoreless draw perhaps made the FAI’s decision to relieve O’Neill of his duties slightly easier.
Throughout his last year in charge O’Neill referred too readily to the exploits of Euro 2016, even though it was a distant memory for Irish fans.
And, like his predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni, O’Neill found himself reminding his audience of his past glories, as if they could somehow insulate him from a string of poor results and performances.
In one of those you-had-to-be-there moments, in the aftermath of their 1-0 home defeat to Wales, O’Neill promised Euro 2020 qualification.
Asked where he derived his optimism from, the manager said: “Because I’m good.”
Throughout the year, Seamus Coleman reminded his team-mates that they had to shoulder their responsibilities too and that poor performances weren't all down to the manager.
Darren Randolph, Harry Arter, Jeff Hendrick, Ciaran Clark, James McClean and Callum O’Dowda all under-performed while the team’s move to a 3-5-2 made them even more dysfunctional in an attacking sense.
O’Neill’s hand wasn’t helped by injuries to Coleman, Stephen Ward, James McCarthy, Robbie Brady and Walters, although persisting with defender Cyrus Christie in a right-sided midfield role defied logic.
Striker Callum Robinson of Preston NE was probably one of the few shafts of light in a dark year for the Republic with O’Neill giving a dozen players their senior international debuts in 2018, the last of which was to Southampton’s Michael Obafemi in the dying embers in Aarhus.
Afterwards, O’Neill attacked the media for their “continuous” criticism of him since the Republic drew with Scotland in June 2015.
But O’Neill is long enough in the game to realise and accept that the kind of performances his team served up fell woefully short.
They scored four goals in nine fixtures in 2018 and drew a blank in six others.
With confidence and morale at a low ebb the FAI acted fairly swiftly by sacking O'Neill two days later. The smart money was on Mick McCarthy returning for a second stint in charge, but by the weekend Stephen Kenny had re-entered the race.
The all-conquering Dundalk manager would only leave Oriel Park for the senior job. The FAI relented but with the condition of making him wait for two years as McCarthy would be given the chance to land a Euro 2020 finals place.
McCarthy was unveiled on Sunday and Kenny on Monday. It all seemed a bit odd.
McCarthy had a lot to consider but two million euro for two years work was an offer he couldn't refuse. He said he was "fine" with a fixed two-year deal with no prospect of it being extended and that he had "accepted" it.
“I wanted the job,” McCarthy said. “They could have said: ‘Take it or leave it’ – and they could have said: ‘See you’, and they would have got somebody else.
“They might have gone and given it to Stephen, and I wanted it. Honestly, it’s a real honour, a privilege and pleasure to be getting it back.”
But McCarthy was unconvincing.
There was more than a hint of a coat hangar smile about the former captain at his unveiling as he batted away umpteen questions about having to leave the post regardless of how the team performs under him. Kenny will assume the U21 post for two years before moving up to the senior job.
Politically, Kenny's pathway to the top job quietened the rebels among the League of Ireland community, many of which would like to see change occur at the top of the FAI.
While McCarthy is adept at building great camaraderie among the squads he’s worked with he will have little interest in blooding new players during his tenure unless, he says, they’re “pulling up trees” – and shoehorned a reference in about Declan Rice and his hope of persuading the West Ham man to choose Ireland ahead of England. Last night, news began filtering through that Rice had indeed opted to resume his career with the Republic.
“There has got to be an element of existing players whatever shape, system we play, there has to be an experienced team going into the qualifiers,” McCarthy said.
With no friendly dates before their first Euro 2020 qualifier in March, it’s probably just as well Mick McCarthy is facing Gibraltar in March before contemplating tough games against familiar rivals Denmark and Switzerland.
March 23 (friendly): Turkey 1-0 Republic of Ireland
May 28 (friendly): France 2-0 Republic of Ireland
June 2 (friendly): Republic of Ireland 2-1 USA
September 6 (Nations League): Wales 4-1 Republic of Ireland
September 11 (friendly): Poland 1-1 Republic of Ireland
October 13 (Nations League): Republic of Ireland 0-0 Denmark
October 16 (Nations League): Republic of Ireland 0-1 Wales
November 15 (friendly): Republic of Ireland 0-0 Northern Ireland
November 19 (Nations League): Denmark 0-0 Republic of Ireland
March 23: Gibraltar (a); March 26: Georgia (h); June 7: Denmark (a); June 10: Gilbraltar (h); Sept 5 Switzerland (h): Oct 12: Georgia (a); Oct 15: Switzerland (a); Nov 18: Denmark (h)
A year in quotes…
“Apparently Harry [Arter] was getting treatment in the treatment room and Roy walked in and was like: 'When are you going to train you f**king pr**k?” and Harry was like: 'What?”, and he was like, 'Any chance of you training?'.” – Stephen Ward’s ‘leaked’ WhatsApp message explains the spat between Roy Keane and Harry Arter that led to the latter temporarily withdrawing from international duty
“And, you know what? I will be astonished if there is not a confrontation between now and November time. If there is not, I'll start it myself.” – Martin O’Neill engages in a bit of fire fighting after the Harry Arter-Roy Keane spat becomes public. The manager insists that rows happen all the time in camps
“If you're asking about Roy's criticism of players, let me tell you this is my responsibility, totally my responsibility, absolutely and utterly.
“Every single kick players make, every save that is made, every corner that is conceded, every goal that is scored is my responsibility, so I'll take full responsibility for what has happened in this camp.
"At the end of it all I'm actually the manager. In my time as a manager, I've chosen two brilliant, brilliant assistant managers, two characters, two world-class players: John Robertson and the young man himself, Roy Keane.
"They're different, but at the end of it all, none of them have ever let me down.” - Martin O’Neill displays loyalty to Roy Keane in light of the Harry Arter row
“I never needed an apology, I never wanted a sorry. I never wanted anything like that. I wasn’t in a position to do that, to be honest with you. It was more just a case of ‘can we put this to bed for the sake of the team’ more than anything else.” – A diplomatic Harry Arter returns to camp after his row with Roy Keane
“I think everybody in this auditorium would agree that we’re technically short. But we’re not short of heart.” - Martin O’Neill discusses the limitations of the Irish squad as well as trying to absorb the absences of Seamus Coleman, Stephen Ward, James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Jonathan Walters for the Nations League match with Wales in Dublin
“The hand you get dealt, you need to have a plan in place. I don’t know what the plan is.” – Former Republic of Ireland midfielder turned pundit Keith Andrews articulates Ireland’s biggest, most fundamental problem
“Keith has really taken to punditry. He might have been trying to make a name for himself by being a little bit harsh. When he was a player it was his job to get on the ball and make things happen and at times he didn’t do that.” – Republic skipper Seamus Coleman hits back at Keith Andrews in equally scathing fashion
“Because I’m good.” – Martin O’Neill explains, in rather curious fashion, why he predicts Euro 2020 qualification with the Republic is already assured despite losing at home to Wales
“When I came in, all I wanted to do was impress my family first and foremost, and then I wanted to impress the manager. I wanted to play. So headlines and stuff like that, I didn’t try and make them better.
“I’d like to think the players I played with, if you asked them what I was like, then they would tell you the truth.” – Ahead of his last-ever international appearance – against Northern Ireland – 85-times capped Glenn Whelan expresses his ambivalence towards the Irish media
“If we were looking to try and put together decent stats I think we wouldn’t have chosen Turkey, away, Poland, away, and France, who went on to win the World Cup.” – Martin O’Neill defends the team’s poor record in 2018
“Since the start of 2017, we have played 17 games. We have won three, we've drawn six and we've lost eight. And in those 17 games we have only twice scored two goals and no more. We scored twice against Moldova and two against the USA in a friendly. That's abysmal for our international team.” – Former Republic manager Brian Kerr doesn’t hold back after the Republic draw a blank against Northern Ireland
“When you were away with Ireland, you didn’t really have that much coaching. It was more of five-a-side, or 11-a-side game, and that would be it. The day before a game you would do a few set pieces here and there and then go into the game. You are kind of thinking to yourself, ‘what shape are we going to play?’” – Rookie international Matt Doherty was none too impressed with the team’s preparation before games
“Look, it’s the same at club level: players on the pitch have to look for the ball, get angles on the ball. If I’ve the ball and don’t have two or three people looking for it, maybe I’ll give it away and it looks like it was my fault.” – Irish captain Seamus Coleman feels the players need to shoulder more responsibility after their scoreless draw with Northern Ireland
“I have told the players to go out with a tennis ball and start practising and I have told them they will definitely improve.” – Martin O’Neill gives some advice to his technically short players
“You’re gathered around here, you’ve been critical of me now for, well, if I look at it, probably since the Scotland game when we drew with them in 2015. So it’s been continuous.” – Martin O’Neill has a cut at the press after another demoralising scoreless draw with Denmark in Aarhus, his last game in charge
“The decision was made before the Denmark game, it was made on the Sunday…I think Martin would accept that the football was poor enough, of recent [times], and the attendances were also dropping. That’s a concern.” - FAI chief executive John Delaney reveals Martin O’Neill and his backroom team were already jettisoned before a ball was kicked against Denmark in Aarhus
“Perhaps they should be given the chance to take it into the next term if they do well. But I knew that wasn’t the case so I accepted it and was fine with it.” – Mick McCarthy is ‘fine’ with being handed a two-year fixed deal with the FAI before handing over the reins to Stephen Kenny after Euro 2020
“In August 2020, it has been decided, in writing.” – ex-Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny c?'2W?6?gW6??&?B??vWGF??F?R6V?"??gFW"WW&?##??( ???6&W2?&R&?BF?R?wVR??&V??F???? ??d?6?Vb??FV???FvW2?2V???fRf?F?R?wVR??&V??FW7?FR7&?F?6?6?F?B?B?6? ?B&VV?&W6?&6VB&?W&???( ?F?( ?B??r?6?&?B?wVR??&V???7FW?V?V??( ?fR?V&B?^( ?2v?&V?v?B&WWFF????2v?w&VB&W7V?2?'WBF?BF?6? ?B?R????W&?F?????vW"? ?( 2??'&G??2?GF??v?B?&W6V&6??'WB?W2?VFvV???????