Brendan Crossan: A lot riding on Republic of Ireland's Nations League games next month after a bad 10 days
IT will be five years this November Martin O’Neill was unveiled as Republic of Ireland manager. The swanky Gibson Hotel in Dublin was thronged with media and well-wishers.
O’Neill won’t play to an easier crowd than that afternoon.
The vast majority of questions O’Neill fielded weren’t actually about him but his decision to appoint Roy Keane as his assistant manager.
In a separate room upstairs in the hotel, O’Neill met newspaper reporters. The same questions were put to him: Why Roy?
Reporters were left with the distinct impression that O'Neill hadn't quite grasped the insatiable interest in the man who divided a nation back in 2002.
O’Neill was happy to give his assessment of Saipan.
“If you’re going back to Saipan… Having qualified for the World Cup it doesn’t come around too often… This was a chance to participate at the World Cup and for a great, great player.
“I would disagree with Roy on that and I think I mentioned that to him. And he retorted by saying he disagreed with my team selection in the 2003 Uefa Cup final!”
The room was in raptures.
O’Neill enjoyed the jocular nature of discussing his new assistant’s colourful past.
Five years on, and with the Republic of Ireland on the ropes and covering up a little bit, O’Neill is still fielding questions about his assistant manager, with slightly less jocularity.
To be more accurate, he’s not merely fielding questions – he’s defending Keane’s ability to do the job he was paid to do.
In fairness to O’Neill he’s shown tremendous loyalty to Keane – to the point where his grip on his own job has loosened considerably as a consequence.
O’Neill’s predicament can’t get any more serious when a player refuses to play for the team because of the assistant manager’s attitude towards him.
No amount of spin could tell us otherwise but it’s been a really bad 10 days for O’Neill and the Republic of Ireland.
The international period kicked off with the bombshell that Harry Arter was taking a break from the Irish set-up, largely due to a bust-up with Keane at the back end of May.
O'Neill knew the questions were coming down the tracks and made the point that Jonathan Walters was also involved in a confrontation with Keane - not for the first time - but the veteran striker had no problems turning up for international duty.
It weakened Arter's argument considerably as O'Neill recalled a few nostalgic tales about his run-ins with "Mister Clough".
O'Neill's strategy was clear, and prior to the Wales defeat, it had a reasonable amount of support.
The manager took an old-school approach to training ground fall-outs. They happen. Get over it. Without saying it, O'Neill implied modern players were too soft, too thin-skinned.
A lot of the gallery nodded in approval.
Then the team loses 4-1 to Wales, posting their worst performance in O'Neill's five years in charge.
The most worrying aspect of Cardiff was the lack of effort.
Wales won't get an easier victory than the one they were handed last Thursday night.
The lack of quality in successive Irish squads has been a serious problem dating as far back to the closing stages of the Jack Charlton era.
With each passing season the dearth of talent has become more pronounced.
O'Neill, to his eternal credit, guided a thoroughly mediocre group of players to the knock-out stages of Euro 2016 and reached the World Cup play-offs 10 months ago, only to be devastated by Denmark and Christian Eriksen.
Irish teams have always made up for their lack of quality by working hard, always out-working the opposition, to get results.
Rarely has the process been entertaining to watch - but it kept the national team relevant while distracting everyone from the poor state of Irish football's underbelly.
When a team fails to do the hard yards the spotlight automatically shifts to the management team.
It was the kind of performance that suggested there were underlying problems in the Irish set-up.
It is undoubtedly true managers can get away with most things as long as their team is winning football matches.
In the aftermath of the Welsh defeat, Harry Arter's situation was studied with more rigour.
Were the players unhappy with the way Keane dealt with the on-loan Cardiff City player?
Were they unhappy with how O'Neill dealt with it?
And did their perceived unhappiness reveal itself on the field in Cardiff?
The subsequent leaking of Stephen Ward's audio account of the Keane-Arter-Walters fall-out doesn't paint the Irish management team in a favourable light.
A bit like James McCarthy, Arter was seen as something of a saviour of Ireland's midfield. McCarthy couldn't quite live up to the expectation placed on his shoulders.
Likewise Arter. But given Ireland's thinning resources, they can't be turning their noses up at a player who has a decent reputation in the English Premiership.
Arter has 13 caps to his name. Keane himself said it took him 25 caps to find his feet at international level.
It was big mistake on behalf of O'Neill and his management team to not strike a peace deal with Arter over the summer months.
A few Cloughie yarns and waxing lyrical about how man-management used to be didn't address the problem.
To his credit, O'Neill has no intentions of throwing Keane under the bus - but privately he must be sick, sore and tired of fielding questions about his assistant manager.
Clearly, the Republic of Ireland aren't in a strong enough position to be apathetic towards a player stepping away from the set-up, especially when you're handing out international debuts to 31-year-olds.
After Tuesday night's gutsy 1-1 friendly result against Poland, a delayed charm offensive is under way to mend some bridges.
Arter's return will be a good PR move for O'Neill and Keane - but as with everything in football, it comes down to results.
There's a lot riding on the outcome of their Nations League games against Denmark and Wales in Dublin next month.