While Brexit likely won’t force a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Michael O’Neill has shown that fortification is most certainly the way forward.
The Republic of Ireland, according to Martin O’Neill, would have taken their current situation prior to the beginning of the qualifying campaign. While that may be hard to believe for some, there’s no doubt that they certainly wouldn’t have accepted it after leaving Austria with three points almost a year ago.
The Irish public’s obsession with expansive football and the accompanying selection process has sometimes overshadowed the expectancy levels in terms of results. It seems ironic that the Republic’s best result in qualification (bar the Germany miracle at the Aviva Stadium) over the last number of years was earned due to a counter-attacking style of play when James McClean capitalised on a swift break in Vienna.
The Wes Hoolahan debate is brought up every single time they play. Yes, he’s the best creative player in the squad. Yes, they’re definitely a better side in possession with him in the team and absolutely – there’s a case to be made for him playing. That’s not the big issue though – and people consistently overlook it.
Under O’Neill, Ireland don’t have an identity. Twenty good minutes against Sweden in the Stade de France has convinced the nation that somehow, they should play in the same manner as their bizarrely-inherited false idols of the Premier League.
There’s football outside of Super Sundays and BT broadcasts.
It’s a sport played by millions of people, yet the approach of a handful seems to be gospel because it’s the self-anointed best league in the world.
Martin O’Neill is certainly limited in his approach, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sam Allardyce didn’t coach expansive football and still got results. Where O’Neill consistently struggles is being in between. Good Dublin performances are usually followed by miserable ones.
With pace up top and players who can break up play in midfield, the Boys in Green look ideally suited to playing on the break. Instead, the nation’s expectation to pass the ball intricately seems to cloud the Dublin skyline whenever they’re at home.
Nobody complained when Jon Walters took a ball out of the heavens and netted past Heinz Lindner.
Results are everything. Martin O’Neill needs to realise that.
You will be judged on your results. If you set up a certain way due to external expectation, before you confuse a squad with your own take on games, you’ll get disjointed performances. That one word is the best way to describe the Republic’s performances on most occasions – disjointed.
Ironically, a legacy formed in the League of Ireland has landed Michael O’Neill the Northern Ireland job. They’ve conceded twice in Group C. Both of those goals were at the hands of Germany around this time last year.
Seven clean sheets with a squad widely accepted to be less talented than their southern counterparts’ means the manager is doing something right. That thing is understanding the limitations of your players and how best to grind out results despite any potential complaints about style of play.
The Republic are ironically green with envy of the north, yet they could easily have the same success should they discard their delusions of relative grandeur. Maybe if the governing body could contextualise their own league and judge the talent within it, they’d find success. Mick O’Neill got Shamrock Rovers into the group stages of the Europa League.
Sean Maguire notched twenty league goals in just twenty-one league games.
He went to Preston North End and almost as if the flight cross-channel improved his hold-up play, the 23-year-old found himself in an Irish squad and may even feature against Moldova at the weekend.
While Martin O’Neill still struggles to figure out just what he wants his squad to do, all Michael O’Neill does is reaffirm his mantra. The results have, perhaps not so astonishingly, followed.