John Brewin: Hope is in short supply for Ireland fans under Martin O’Neill

After a dire 2018 for the Republic of Ireland, John Brewin looks at where the country is under current boss Martin O’Neill…

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As a Sky Sports blogger so fittingly put it, it “was a game that could put you off football for life”.

Ireland’s 0-0 draw with Denmark was one of those matches that looks like a goalless draw right from the opening seconds. That Ireland would not score was almost a certainty, as a fourth match passed by without a goal to complete a calendar year in which they have won just once in nine.

Their case is not helped much by the heroics of Ireland’s rugby team.

Saturday’s 16-9 defeat of New Zealand was professional sport played at its apex, with Joe Schmidt’s men digging deep into their reserves to hold off the All Blacks, having executed their tactical plan to near-perfection.

In terms of the culture war that rages between rugby and soccer in Ireland, the 15-man game is probably at its highest point in history, while the 11-man game is perhaps at its lowest ebb since Jack Charlton put his flat cap on the peg in 1985.

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And the situation is hardly helped by some further comparisons, those with Ireland’s neighbours.

Wales, with whom the Irish have been inextricably connected by recent tournaments, finished four points clear of Martin O’Neill’s team in their Nations League group, one in which the Irish scored just one goal in four matches and were twice beaten by Ryan Giggs’ team.

September’s 4-1 win in Cardiff was a show of the talent Giggs has to hand: Brentford defender Chris Mepham, Bournemouth attacking midfielder David Brooks and Chelsea teenager Ethan Ampadu in central midfield.

Giggs’ mettle as a manager remains unknown, but while showing a willingness to trust youth he has twice got the better of O’Neill, one of the most experienced bosses in the game at 66 – and one of the best paid.

Only Jogi Low, Didier Deschamps and Fernando Santos receive a higher salary and that is an elite group that has won the last three major international tournaments between them.

O’Neill’s reported salary of €2m places him level with Gareth Southgate, another uncomfortable comparison. The Ulsterman’s fifth anniversary in charge passed last week, and without too much celebration.

Euro 2016, in which Ireland pulled off a famous win over Italy to set up a quarter-final in Lyon where they ran the French close, fades in the memory amid the turgid football that has followed since.

The main tactic in World Cup qualifying appeared to be boring the opposition into submission; there were few other discernible patterns of play.

It worked on the Welsh in the final qualifying group game, but not on the Danes who took apart the Irish in Dublin a year ago last week.

Irish international football has not recovered from the second-half destruction that followed O’Neill’s removal of his defensive midfield at the break. And it did not result in a change of thinking.

O’Neill retains residual defenders for that “no tactics” approach, with the main argument being the calibre of player he has to work with. It holds some water considering that Irish players’ chances in English football have been reduced by the waves of foreign talent that now flow into youth football and the lack of resources available in the League of Ireland.

But is still tempting to consider what might have been had O’Neill been able to call the likes of Jack Grealish, Declan Rice, Liam Kelly and Ampadu, who was also eligible for Ireland, into the fold rather than allow them to surrender their Irish roots to play for someone else.

The Grealish saga of three years ago, in which a player who used to decorate his social media account with shamrocks eventually plumped for England, seems to have stopped O’Neill over-exerting himself when it comes to convincing players to play for him.

That Rice was the star of that sole victory of 2018, over the USA in June, is especially problematic.

He now seems likely to sign up to Southgate’s team, where he looks to have the quality of anticipation and distribution to eventually supplant Eric Dier.

That would give the West Ham player chance to work with a manager who trusts young players and receive the financial benefits that becoming an England player bring.

He’ll also have the chance to compete for the European Championships in 2020 and the World Cup in 2022, tournaments for which the chances of Ireland qualifying look to be a long shot.

The final defence of O’Neill is a lack of other managers. Chris Hughton, the foremost Irish manager in English football, is doing too well at Brighton to even consider taking Ireland’s call, leaving Mick McCarthy as the only obvious contender.

Sixteen years on from stepping down, that McCarthy seems far more progressive says much for O’Neill continuing on.

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