A good indication of the job Martin O’Neill has done with Ireland is that the majority of the country have forgotten Ireland are in Aarhus to play Denmark on Monday night.
Indeed, the free shot that the Derry native has manufactured against the source of his biggest downfalls to date, is fairly much in line with the brief he must feed himself every time before he takes to the Ireland changing room.
I’ve got nothing to lose here – and there’s no real responsibility on me.
Monday night will likely feature an experimental lineup. But be in no doubt that this will be done simply to pacify people and to have a ready-made excuse in the wings in case his charges are hit for four – or indeed, five – again.
But the paradox only begins there. In previous years, O’Neill would make very few changes. This is largely due to the fact he didn’t know enough about the wider pool of players at his disposal, and because he had too much pride in fielding a weakened team in his tenure for the future benefit of the nation football-wise.
Someone made a point to me the other day. If you’re of a certain age and you compare the weight of time of Alex Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford (27 years) to Martin O’Neill’s time with Ireland (5 years), then pound for pound or day for day, the Northern Irishman’s time on the back pages seems to significantly outweigh that of Ferguson’s.
This Denmark game will be but a footnote.
However, despite of the lack of instruction they’ll be given, it’s an important footnote for a few reasons.
Their indifference made a nation self-reflect briefly – on our fandom, even touching upon nationalism and Irish identity – all the while, big Martin’s win percentage was getting worse in front of our faces, but somehow, behind our backs.
This Denmark game is important because we’ll get to see different players. Seamus Coleman came to the defence of his manager by stating that the players just didn’t make the conscious decisions to move of the ball and find the right angles for their team mates. It was an attempt to alleviate blame from Martin O’Neill.
But what he was actually saying was, that they’re not drilled well enough to do it automatically. If Manchester City, or indeed Luton Town had to think about everything they were about to do on a football pitch, the game would be played at half pace. Which, ironically, is exactly what it feels like to watch Ireland.
Good coaches implement awareness and routine so well that players know what they have to do and develop instinct as to where their team mates are. Not here, though.
Yet this clash in Aarhus (in the middle of our street) will reveal how ingrained that lack of unity is to the younger generation and to the fringe players. It’s easy to be suffocated by O’Neill’s half-arsed approach when you’re laser-focused on a qualification campaign, but if that truly extends to the next crop and those on the outside, looking in – then the scarring of the next crop of hopefuls has already begun.
Very little good can come out of this Denmark clash.
In fact, it’s more about the fear factor of avoiding disaster for the future generation of Ireland players. Well done on your legacy, Martin.