Martin O’Neill has always been the right manager to defy the odds. He transcended all expectation to guide Leicester City to League Cup glory in 1997 and 2000 and created a stylish and slick outfit with Aston Villa who don’t nearly resemble Paul Lambert’s team of the past two seasons.
With the Republic of Ireland, he is faced with a very similar task. Ireland are currently on a six-game stretch without a victory, stretching back to a 3-0 win over Latvia in a friendly last November.
Since then they have been distinctly underwhelming, losing at home to Serbia and Turkey at the Aviva Stadium, scraping draws against Italy and Costa Rica before a 5-1 annihilation at the hands of Portugal just prior to the World Cup. Rewind back to 2001 and Mick McCarthy’s Ireland side were drawing 1-1 against the same opponents and beating Holland en route to qualifying for the World Cup in 2002. A lot has changed since.
Unfortunately for the men in green, the proceeding decade has witnessed a steady decline as they tumble further and further away from the higher reaches of international football. Failing to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil proved to be the last straw for Giovanni Trapattoni, as he left Martin O’Neill with a mountain to climb if he is going to return Ireland to a major tournament. Whilst it is true that only two years ago they qualified for Euro 2012 but that tournament served only to remind the Irish fans, no matter how triumphantly vocal they were, how far behind their country lagged against Italy, Spain and Croatia. O’Neill’s main job now is to really give the fans something to sing about.
A home friendly against Oman on Wednesday night provides the perfect opportunity for O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane to peruse over their options for the Euro qualifier against Georgia. O’Neill’s squad, which contains Robbie Brady, Stephen Quinn and Anthony Pilkington, suggests that he is open to experimenting somewhat and give some of the younger players a chance to impress.
Brady, still only 22, has featured prominently in the Premier League for Hull City and has proven that he can offer an exciting outlet on the wing. Given that he has only six caps to his name O’Neill may be wary about placing his trust in him but it is forward-thinking youngsters that Ireland are crying out for. Years have gone by when they have relied on the attacking industry of Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle but now O’Neill must implement a degree of balance and ensure the fans that goals can come from throughout the team.
Shane Long is another player who could potentially alleviate the weight on the Keane-Doyle axis but he desperately needs to add more goals to his game if he is going to spearhead an Irish resurgence. He has always been an endearing figure up front with his relentless work-rate but he has never managed to surpass eight goals in a full season in the Premier League which suggests that Ireland may need a more prolific marksman to kick-start their revival.
Goals may be a problem for O’Neill’s men but the more immediate and critical issue that lies in the squad is in defence. Marc Wilson and Stephen Ward are capable defenders but John O’Shea is 33 and still playing regular first-team football with Sunderland which always creates a higher risk of fatigue for a player of that age.
Seamus Coleman had an encouraging campaign with Everton but he is more attuned at bombing up the right flank than fulfilling his defensive duties. More than anything, O’Neill will miss the dominant presence of Richard Dunne, who has retired from international football. The Irish defence will need to adapt quickly without their leader as they start their preparations for a tough qualifying process.
The worrying thing for O’Neill though is not necessarily the defenders he has, it is the lack of defenders that he may have.The integration of youth into the national set-up is worrying in terms of defensive cover and it may prove decisive when they come up against Germany and Poland over the course of the next 12 months. O’Neill named a provisional 36-man squad for the Oman game and there were no uncapped players in sight, showing the lack of progression for Irish football which is not helping the currently stagnant and underwhelming crop of players.
Aiden McGeady’s return to the Premier League with Everton seems to be producing glimpses of his old form after a shaky start in January when he looked to seriously lack fitness but his inclusion in Roberto Martinez’s early-season shake-up will have pleased O’Neill as he looks to add as much creativity and pace to his starting line-up. The same could be said for James McClean, who featured consistently for Wigan Athletic in the Championship last season and can also bring fire and fight to Ireland’s attacks but he is currently tackling a long-term injury, which only creates further headaches for his nation’s manager.
The outlook ahead of the qualifying campaign for the Euros is far from rosy for the Emerald Isle as the squad continues to huff and puff without a fresh injection of new faces. O’Neill has to be more fearless than Trapattoni if he is to get this team to a major tournament once again.
A trip away to the minnows Georgia will always be tough considering the distance travelled but a home friendly against Oman in front of the ever-singing Irish band is the perfect opportunity for O’Neill’s men to express themselves and prove that they have the quality and character required to sustain a difficult qualification programme that pits them against Germany, Poland and Scotland.