Martin O’Neill’s reign as Republic of Ireland manager began with a nine month phoney war. Eight friendlies were played in that period and even the most diehard fan would struggle to list them all. The results are mainly forgotten and irrelevant.
He used them to find his best players and tactics for the subsequent campaigns. His side subsequently faced an intense 28 competitive games in just over three years with little chance to experiment.
The Ireland boss would no doubt strongly argue that this period has been a success and, in fairness, this assertion is mainly correct – qualification for Euro 2016 was the target and subsequently reaching the knockout stages losing narrowly to the hosts was a bonus.
Even losing in the playoffs for the 2018 FIFA World Cup can hardly be considered failure, even if it involved a catastrophic 5-1 home defeat by Denmark.
The phoney war is back. The next qualifier is still a year away and the opposition won’t even be known until December. The preparation for this began in Antalya with a warm weather training camp followed by a friendly with Turkey.
The 1-0 defeat won’t live long in the memory, but the week may provide vital preparation for the task ahead.
Declan Rice took to international football like a duck to water, easily being the standout player for the visitors and rightly took the headlines and plaudits. But there were a number of others who may yet play a key role in the years ahead.
Matt Doherty is surely heading to the Premier League with Wolves and will be pushing for a place in O’Neill’s starting XI particularly if he chooses to play with wingbacks.
Alan Browne and Conor Hourihane will benefit from their respective starts in midfield but will need further opportunities to impress. Up front Scott Hogan had a great opportunity to score following a sublime Jeff Hendrick pass but just went too wide of the goal.
Colin Doyle in goal endured over a decade between caps and deserved his opportunity, though the goalkeeping youth prospect, Manchester United’s Kieran O’Hara will have to use the U21s to impress. If Darren Randolph, Rob Elliott and Keiren Westwood are all available then they will most likely make the competitive squads.
There are four more friendlies this year and a squad will be sent to Glasgow for Scott Brown’s testimonial. There will also be four games in the new UEFA Nations League. This should, at a minimum, provide a fallback if qualification for 2020 is not achieved through the group stages. There will be new faces in the squads and probably new tactics planned.
Dublin will host four games in Euro 2020. It may be the country’s only opportunity to host matches in a major finals. Qualification for the tournament proper would ensure a minimum of two home games.
A potentially huge prize and surely the biggest sporting events ever held in the nation’s capital. Demand for tickets would be unprecedented; the atmosphere around Dublin would be incredible and the all important commercial opportunities for the FAI would be phenomenal.
The Aviva Stadium is an impressive venue and the events will no doubt be well run, but it will be a chance missed should one of the teams involved not be playing in green. Dublin hosted a Europa League Final, but the much-vaunted Irish footballing public failed to sell-out the stadium and the atmosphere at the game was decidedly muted.
So beyond the obvious footballing achievements, qualifying for Euro 2020 is crucial from a commercial point of view – The country would grind to a halt to support a Republic of Ireland team playing major tournament games on home soil; however, it’s hard to see fixtures such as Portugal v Bulgaria in Dublin selling out.
The forthcoming Euro 2020 campaign is simply the most important in the country’s recent history and will define Martin O’Neill’s legacy as Irish manager.
A decent Nations League campaign (avoiding relegation) will ensure a place in the second pot for December’s qualifying draw in Dublin and should also secure the fallback of a March 2020 playoff if the qualifying campaign goes wrong.
With 24 places on offer competition will be still, especially when considering how the likes of Serbia, Denmark and the Netherlands all failed to make the cut for Euro2016.
However, with new players blooded and a sense of experimentation surrounding the national team set up, the week in Antalya may have set the foundations in place for some of the biggest games in the country’s history.