If you were an Irishman in Cardiff on Thursday night and briefly closed your eyes while walking down Bute Street, you’d have tasted the Nicosia air you have tried to expel from your psyche for over a decade.
With that bitter breath came a crisp soundbite that rung through the air in a soft Derry tone, quenching all optimism and delivered in two distinctive, sharp sentences.
The first – “I think that we need to try and be braver on the ball” – is a body blow that bends you over and initiates a burst of internal bleeding.
The second – “My enthusiasm for the job has not diminished for one jot, there’s a long way to go” – is the knockout blow that makes you forget everything you ever knew.
While the two are saying very different things, Martin O’Neill seems to think that one follows from the other. This long-haul mantra he speaks of gives him time, at least in his mind, to turn it around.
But the 66-year-old is speaking of players being braver on the ball. This comes from training sessions and a long-term philosophy established over time. As if anyone needs reminding, and sorry for this – the man has been in charge for five years.
He speaks of missing key players and not being able to put on a show because of that.
Martin, we have never put on anything resembling a footballing show in your tenure – either with Premier League player-filled XIs or without them.
As if desperately grasping for a rope that could lift him to safety, O’Neill has long pointed to excuses for his Ireland teams that simply don’t make sense. This is just the latest one.
And when he can’t think of something to fit the bill, he’ll undoubtedly send reporters, and by association, the public, into a time-lapse where he expects his previous honours and achievements to stand up to a nation being suffocated by transparent indifference from their footballing head honcho.
That 5-2 defeat to Cyprus was chronic. The Republic of Ireland finished a distant third in that qualifying group for Euro 2008 – but the national team wasn’t led by a manager who frequently insisted nothing was wrong and who deflected blame away from himself.
If that game is considered a literal low, maybe this is a spiritual one.
There was an eagerness to see the side respond a decade ago. Now, not even the flashy advertising boards of the Aviva Stadium can gloss over the Stone Age fare people are being expected to dish out hard-earned cash for.
Back then, change seems probable, if not inevitable. There was hope. There was a horizon to walk towards.
It’s hard to imagine much that O’Neill could do now to get sacked.
The ball is very much in his court with his contract, leaving a sense that the association is being held hostage by their own employee.
Now also seems a good time to issue a reminder – Martin O’Neill twiddled his thumbs when it came to that contract extension. It seemed that, right then, the job wasn’t a priority for him. That’s fine – anyone can weigh up their options and based on success, at least results-wise, he may even have merited the offer.
But he has signed the deal and, while the ink was still drying, he resumed his reign of indifference towards the post. Declan Rice might be on a journey of self-discovery at present, but at least he’s considering the importance of his role in getting the Republic of Ireland to a higher level.
That back five that went to Cardiff was effectively full-strength. The manager’s approach has long been keeping solid and hoping for a moment of magic.
While the absence of magical moments can be put down to a lack of Premier League stars in the final third of the pitch – as it has been and repeatedly will be – his own blueprint is turning greyer with every passing international.
Tenures usually turn grey before fading to black, but this one seems evergreen due to a lack of pressure on those in charge rather than anything to do with the health of Irish football.
Ireland are at a new low. A common misconception is that the only way from the bottom is up. That’s not true.
You can crawl and dig sideways.