Martin O'Neill's Midas touch lets him down as Republic of Ireland fall at World Cup play-off hurdle
IF the Dublin skies didn’t fall on top of the Aviva Stadium on November 14 2017, it certainly felt like they did. Dressed in pristine white and red, Christian Eriksen was the devil in disguise.
His every move was smoothness itself - every strike at Ireland’s goal utterly ruthless.
Denmark’s sumptuous playmaker caused untold trauma on the night by ramming home three spectacular goals to ruin the Republic of Ireland’s dreams of playing at next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia.
The Irish capital that night was the proverbial living nightmare.
The Danes scored five goals in total as Martin O’Neill’s best-laid plans were reduced to rubble.
And yet, three days earlier the world seemed a much brighter place upon leaving wonderful Copenhagen with a scoreless draw in the bag and a World Cup berth within touching distance.
When big Shane Duffy launched himself towards the loose ball to head into the Danish net after just six minutes of the second leg in Dublin it felt like the Irish had not only sealed qualification but won the World Cup.
The exuberant celebrations were desperately premature.
Even before the ensuing nightmare, James McClean – Ireland ’s best player in qualification by quite a stretch – fired wide of Kasper Schemichel’s goal that would have put O’Neill’s two goals in front.
But the enemy - strictly from an Irish perspective - was always going to be that a football match might break out in Dublin.
And it did with devastating consequences.
No matter how hard Martin O’Neill’s diligent foot soldiers tried, it was impossible for them to keep this two-legged World Cup tie in a perpetual state of ugliness.
When holes began to appear the Danes always possessed the greater quality – more quality than many observers believed they had – than the Irish.
It’s probably accurate to say the Republic players made more mistakes in that ill-fated second leg than they did during the entire qualification campaign.
Stephen Ward, Ireland’s resident left back, had been safe as houses up until the second leg when he messed up for Denmark’s second and fourth goals.
By the time Nicklas Bendtner thundered home from the penalty spot in stoppage-time to make it five it was all too much for the Republic of Ireland supporters – many of whom had already escaped the misery and headed for the night roads.
The post-mortem would be nasty and brutish. Martin O’Neill stood accused.
Persistently criticised for the team’s austere style, the former Northern Ireland international midfielder was now facing more serious charges: tactical naivety and poor team selection.
Starting Daryl Murphy in the second leg was the manager’s most baffling choice, particularly given the ageing striker’s lack of mobility to close down the Danish defence in Copenhagen.
Every pundit was convinced the Nottingham Forest striker would be benched for the second leg.
If the first leg was crying out for Shane Long’s energy to hassle the Danes, it seemed a no-brainer to start the Tipperary native in the second leg.
Alas, Murphy started again. His selection yielded the same unsatisfactory result.
The Danish defenders were handed the freedom of Dublin and Age Hareide’s men easily clawed their way back into contention after going a goal down.
By half-time the Danes had recovered well and led 2-1.
O’Neill replaced his midfield base by removing Harry Arter and David Meyler during the interval and introduced Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan in a bid to retrieve the game.
Another charge: the manager had rolled the dice too soon.
As a consequence, space wasn’t hard to find and Eriksen caused maximum damage against their ramshackle hosts.
At least perverse logic was on O’Neill’s side in the aftermath.
While it remained the unspoken, one of the reasons why O’Neill’s approach was ultra-defensive was because the side wasn’t good enough to go toe to toe with teams of superior quality.
To stand a chance, they needed to break the rhythm of the opposition, and the game, and hope to nick a goal on the counter-attack or from a set piece in order to progress in qualification.
For this game plan to be successful, the margin for error is virtually zero. Despite the odds, O’Neill’s one-chance-one-goal template worked a treat in Cardiff back in October.
James McClean’s first-time effort proved one of the great nights of Irish football and resurrected Ireland’s World Cup final hopes.
When Joe Allen was kicked out of his stride in the first half and with Aaron Ramsey feeling the pressure in a Wales side without Gareth Bale, the second half was set up for a smash-and-grab night in the Welsh capital.
The Danes, to Ireland’s detriment, were made of sterner stuff than the Welsh.
The team’s poor home form in 2017 cost them everything in the end.
They played out a scoreless draw with Wales back in March – marred, of course, by Seamus Coleman's double leg break – and they lost further ground by struggling to bank a point at home to an out-of-sorts Austria side in June.
Despite desperate nights away to Georgia and at home to eventual group winners Serbia that yielded one point out of a possible six, a nation was still holding out for O’Neill’s Midas touch to rescue Ireland's World Cup dream.
And it very nearly worked.
Daryl Murphy’s brace was enough to see off Moldova and then came the unlikeliest of wins in Cardiff a few days later that somehow put the Irish in the play-offs.
Cardiff has a lot to answer for as everything went into soft focus after that glorious night.
O'Neill walked out of his post-match interview with RTE while 'sources close to the manager' suggested that the Kilrea man felt under-valued for his work.
O'Neill has verbally agreed a new two-year contract with the FAI.
It's reached the stage now where the Association needs to see pen to paper.
As the 32 finalists prepare for the unique experience of a World Cup in Russia, the Irish have a friendly international in Turkey to look forward to in March.
It couldn't get more grim.
A Year in Quotes...
“That’s complete and utter b******s. I have a career in the game. I don’t know why I have to go and say these things. I’ve had to fight for everything as a player, every single day. It’s no hardship… I won competitions for Leicester . I managed a team in the UEFA Cup final…”
– Martin O’Neill reacts to being described as a “lucky” manager by former Republic of Ireland midfielder Keith Andrews
“I haven’t really had a chance to speak to Roy about it. I think he’ll be fine. I feel if Rory wants an autograph, he’ll probably get it.”
– Martin O’Neill comments on the hoopla that Rory McIlroy was once refused an autograph by Roy Keane
“I think we will try to be that bit more expansive [than the first leg] if we can and deal with the ball a wee bit better. We are going to try to win the game and will try to find a way to win it. These players have been able to do that in the last couple of years.”
- Martin O’Neill ahead of the World Cup play-off second leg with Denmark
“I’ve been called worse.”
- Roy Keane laughs off Eamonn Dunphy calling him a cabaret act
“[I do] Very little… I'm not sure what I'm doing here to be honest with you. I make lots of tea. I said that before and people joked, but I do make lots of tea for the staff and stuff. What else do I do? Not too much.”
– Roy Keane insists his main role is plying the staff with cups of tea during international duty
"I think if a bus was coming at Shane Duffy he'd try to get his head on it.”
- Harry Arter hails Shane Duffy’s braveheart display against Wales in Cardiff
“Listen, you’re a professional footballer. The least thing you can do is run your heart out for 90 minutes. That’s the least expected of you as a footballer.”
– Striker Daryl Murphy spells out the importance of carrying out the fundamentals of the game after he chased lost causes all night in Cardiff
“There is a lot of stuff we get taught. Throw it out the window. He does completely the opposite. You won’t even see him. There were times you’d turn up on a Friday and I couldn’t tell you what our formation was on a Saturday or who was playing where.
“I’d read the list and I’d look at Neil Lennon and ask him: ‘What formation are we playing?’ There was no information whatsoever.
“But, I tell you, he knew his players, you knew where you stood with him. And if you played well for him, the confidence he’d give you, the way he could make you feel, you wanted to run even more for him. There is just something about the guy. He’s just an incredible man.”
– Craig Bellamy pays tribute to Martin O’Neill’s unique managerial style after the Irish beat Wales in the World Cup Qualifiers
“I don't think today is the day to discuss it but I must admit with the Euros and the possibility of qualifying [for the World Cup] and some games in Dublin it would be really exciting...
"We have qualified for one competition and I think season tickets have gone from 4,000 to 16,000, so I think there is some evidence we are doing okay. I suppose one-out-of-one isn’t so bad.”
– Prior to the Moldova clash in Dublin, Martin O’Neill talks up his own performance and hints at signing a new contract with the FAI. A few hours later the FAI confirm O’Neill verbally agrees a two-year extension
“I think Eriksen has become as important to Denmark as Gareth Bale has to Wales and he is certainly of that ilk. He is playing exceptionally well.
"If you are talking about [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo being the two outstanding players in the world, then Bale is in that little group behind them that includes Hazard, Bale, Suarez, Neymar - all of those players and Eriksen, in his last year both for club and country, has put himself into that sort of category. I can’t pay him a much higher compliment.”
– Martin O’Neill isn’t wrong about the Christian Eriksen’s claim to being one of the best in the world ahead of their two-legged play-off with Denmark
"I'm not exactly sure what you're trying to say. We've played 24 games; we've been beaten four times. We are in a play-off situation, and you keep going back that we conceded, we scored in the first minute against Serbia . Real Madrid and Barcelona can concede in the first minute and come back… just let me finish, let me finish.
"It’s very important for you to know this: this is tough, really, really tough. We find it tough. We’re usually playing against sides with superior quality. We’ve got a great old spirit in here. We were well beaten tonight. We could have been two-nil in front and it might have been a different story…"
- Martin O’Neill ends his post-match interview with RTE journalist Tony O’Donoghue after the Republic were thrashed 5-1 by Denmark
“I’d like to say I am extremely proud to represent my country, the Republic of Ireland , and I give everything I can each time I put on the green shirt. I genuinely believe our fans are some of the best in the world.
“However, there have been a number of racist comments which have been brought to my attention during the World Cup qualifying campaign over the last couple of months...
“These comments are not representative of our fans or our sport. We were all deeply upset to not reach the World Cup finals and are hurting just as much as everyone else. It is deeply saddening that racism is still part of the game we all enjoy and love. I strongly believe we need to stand up against these individuals who do not belong in football or any other sport.”
– Ireland right back Cyrus Christie speaks out after he was racially abused on social media by so-called football fans
“So Paul Kimmage (some journalist) is upset the critter about me winning RTE sportsperson of year, as voted by the Irish public I may add. Paul and whoever else is upset about it, as I go shine my award I apologise sincerely for not giving a toss.”
– James McClean dismisses criticism after being voted sportsperson of the year by RTE
March 24: Dublin , World Cup Qualifying Group D: Republic of Ireland 0 Wales 0
March 28: Dublin , International friendly: Republic of Ireland 0 Iceland 1
June 1: New Jersey , International friendly: Republic of Ireland 1 Mexico 3
June 4: Dublin, International friendly: Republic of Ireland 3 Uruguay 1
June 11: World Cup Qualifying Group D: Republic of Ireland 1 Austria 1
Sept 2: Tbilisi , World Cup Qualifying Group D: Georgia 1 Republic of Ireland 1
Sept 5: Dublin , World Cup Qualifying Group D: Republic of Ireland 0 Serbia 1
Oct 6: Dublin , World Cup Qualifying Group D: Republic of Ireland 2 Moldova 0
Oct 9: Cardiff , World Cup Qualifying Group D: Wales 0 Republic of Ireland 1
Nov 11: Copenhagen , World Cup Qualifying play-off, first leg: Denmark 0 Republic of Ireland 0
Nov 14: Dublin , World Cup Qualifying play-off, second leg: Republic of Ireland 1 Denmark 5
March 23 (international friendly): Turkey v Republic of Ireland
May 28: (2018 final tournament Group stage): France v Republic of Ireland