Following Tuesday night’s 1-0 home defeat at the hands of top seeds Serbia, Ireland’s hopes of a place at the 2018 Russia World Cup look to be dead in the water.
In a week where anything less than four points was viewed upon as being a failure, Martin O’Neill’s charges only managed to claim a single point thanks in part to his side’s ultra-negative display in Tbilisi on Saturday night.
Normally it would be a case of trigger-happiness to question a managers future in a situation where two wins from the final two games could still secure the teams place in the play-offs, however even that now seems an unlikely event given Ireland’s woeful record with the ‘Boys in Green’ now relying on other nations results to avoid finishing as the worst ranked runners-up.
Barring a miracle, should Ireland fail to make it to Russia, it is undoubtedly the past four days fans and pundits alike will look back on as where it all went wrong for Roy Keane and O’Neill, however the warning signs had been in place long before Saturday’s horror show in Tbilisi.
Going back to the very start of the campaign last September, a 2-2 draw away to the top ranked side in the group may not have seemed like a bad result, especially when it took a last-gasp Daryl Murphy bullet-header to rescue a point.
But the post-match statistics that night certainly highlighted that we may be in for a long campaign of dire football with only 94 passes completed against the Serbs.
However, with home and away ties against the suspected whipping boys of the group in Georgia and Moldova up next, it was full steam ahead for O’Neill and Keane.
Perhaps it was October 6th 2016 that should have awoken the Irish footballing public a lot sooner as to the issues this team and its coaching staff faced.
Outplayed for large periods and counting the blessings of the Aviva woodwork on a couple of occasions, a comical yet heroic Seamus Coleman goal saw the hosts scrape by Georgia by the skin of their teeth on a night where Martin O’Neill’s inability to decide on a decisive style of play was clear for all to see.
The cries from Eamon Dunphy and co. were loud and clear as a lucky Ireland headed for the unknowns of Moldova.
An early Shane Long goal should have settled any nerves the visitors travelled with but as we saw during Saturday’s Tbilisi troubles, an early lead only encouraged Ireland to sit needlessly deep and invite pressure against a team they were more than capable of getting on top of.
A moment of brain freeze from Shane Duffy allowed Moldova to deservedly equalise on the night and although James McClean would spare Irish blushes late on, that first half performance in Chisinau should have been a huge learning curve for Martin O’Neill’s side.
However the ‘defend any sort of lead’ mentality was allowed to continue within the Irish ranks and it finally came back to bite us in that 1-1 draw in Georgia at the weekend.
The 1-0 win over Austria in Vienna probably added to that sense of invincibility-once-ahead mindset but again the management team failed to learn the lessons. Top performers in that big away win were David Meyler, Wes Hoolahan, James McClean and a fully fit central striker by the name of Jonathan Walters.
Limping off after just twenty-minutes in Vienna was the universally unpopular Glenn Whelan and it was only after the Aston Villa man departed the pitch that Ireland started to play.
However, throughout this qualification campaign we’ve seen huge inconsistencies in Martin O’Neill’s team selection and systems of play with – arguably – our best player in Robbie Brady popping up down the left side, in central midfield and even in the number ten position.
Brady’s qualities as a hard-working wide player who can be used as a pressure outlet down the left flank are there for all to see, but O’Neill seems to have grand ideas of using Brady as some sort of playmaker, despite the fact we already have a ready-made one in the brilliant Wes Hoolahan.
Like Brady, James McClean is a player you associate with speed and power out wide, so is it any surprise that multiple teams have picked us off down the flanks in this campaign when our best wide-players have been asked to do a job they are totally uncomfortable and unfamiliar with in central midfield.
As for the aforementioned Jon Walters, the Burnley man played 120 minutes this week when clearly not fit, yet O’Neill deemed Hoolahan incapable of even a cameo role away to Georgia in a game where three points were crying out.
Walters’ best performances for Ireland have always come in a target man role, yet on Saturday he found himself having to do an unmerciful amount of defensive work due to the frailties of Cyrus Christie, who should be nowhere near an Ireland team regardless of the injury to Seamus Coleman.
Of course, we should accept that Martin O’Neill has been unlucky with injuries during this campaign. The former Celtic supremo has had to deal with a hostile Everton boss in regards to James McCarthy’s long-running injury issues, while Jeff Hendrick and most importantly Seamus Coleman have all been unavailable for recent games.
Also, O’Neill has been the manager that has had to deal with the eventual retirement of all-time leading marksman Robbie Keane, and even with his advancing years and decision to jet off to the exotic scenes of Indian football, you feel the Tallaght native could still have done a job for us this past week.
The lack of a natural goalscorer has troubled Ireland greatly in this group, but that only makes the decision not to reward free-scoring Sean Maguire with his chance in the Green jersey all the more dumbfounding.
Even the most staunch of League of Ireland fan will agree that the standard of the domestic game in Ireland is miles apart from that of Maguire’s new surrounds at Preston, but any striker that records twenty goals in a season is sure to be high on confidence in any game they play and Maguire’s instant impact at Preston proved that.
Although the Kilkenny native has found game-time slightly harder to come by at Deepdale in recent weeks, the opportunity to blood the then Cork City man during meaningless international friendlies was open to O’Neill who outright refused that golden chance.
O’Neill’s blind faith in old favourites such as Glenn Whelan and particularly Aidan McGeady may very well come back to bite the boss, with similar criticism thrown strongly in the direction of Giovanni Trapattoni towards the end of his tenure.
All the talk ahead of last night’s game was of the magical moments of recent campaigns at the Aviva Stadium and how for a small nation to still be undefeated in this group was quite remarkable.
However, what Martin O’Neill has failed to mention following last night’s defeat is that his troops have only claimed two points from a possible nine against Wales, Austria and Serbia at the Lansdowne Road venue.
Not only that but for periods of those home ties against Wales and Serbia respectively, Ireland had an extra man and barely registered a shot in that time.
Forty-yard pop shots against a less than impressive Serbia last night were a sign that this Ireland team has lost the mojo it displayed so wonderfully in France and unless new blood and ideas are injected quickly, it won’t just be the Russia dream that dies but future campaigns will also fail to come to life.
So where does Irish football go from here? Where does that fresh blood and new-found thinking come from? Perhaps the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) should look to their Northern counterparts for some inspiration.
After years of trying out the usual unwanted names and faces, the Irish Football Association (IFA) took the brave decision to appoint a manager who made his name in Irish domestic football with Shamrock Rovers. Michael O’Neill guided ‘the Hoops’ to not only to back to back Premier Division titles and other cup successes but most importantly he became the first boss in history to steer a LOI club into the group stages of a UEFA competition.
Unconcerned with a perceived lack of glamour, the IFA rewarded O’Neill simply on the merits of his success with Shamrock Rovers and despite a slow start to life with the national team, O’Neill guided the “Green Army” to the knockout stages on Euro 2016 and they are now well on course to a first World Cup finals appearance since 1986.
Getting straight to the point, Stephen Kenny arrived at Dundalk Football Club following a financial meltdown in 2012 which saw the County Louth club go within mere hours of total extinction.
Bringing in players which were largely rejected by other clubs and far from being highly rated or recognised, Kenny went on to deliver three league titles in a row, multiple cup triumphs and of course last season’s famous European run which saw Dundalk become the first Irish side in history to win a European group stage match, surpassing the success of Michael O’Neill’s Shamrock Rovers side of 2011.
A win at home to Maccabi Tel Aviv and an equally famous away point in Alkmaar saw Dundalk go into the final group game away in Israel with a chance of qualification for the last 32 in the Europa League.
Playing out of a league where there is no TV money and the majority of clubs are living off gate receipts week to week, to not only competing but turning over sides full of international footballers on mega payslips, Dundalk’s success is right up there with footballing fairy tales such as Leicester City’s title win and Iceland’s Euro 2016 escapades.
However, it was the style of play adopted by the man known within Irish football as “King Kenny” which captured the hearts and minds of a footballing public whom largely make no effort to hide their disdain for the League of Ireland.
The calls for the LOI’s top boss to become Ireland manager were already well in motion when Eamon Dunphy publically praised the former Longford Town manager during a post-match rant on Ireland’s horrendous style of play, or lack of it.
Having scrolled through message boards and of course social media in recent days, the main concern among Ireland fans for the potential of Stephen Kenny as Ireland boss is that he would not receive the respect of the dressing room, as many suspect Brian Kerr didn’t during his tenure.
However, what those people may not know unless they have followed Kenny’s career in Ireland is that this is a manager who endured the worst spell of his professional life in the job previous to Dundalk.
Appointed manager on a three-year-contract at his boyhood club Shamrock Rovers, undoubtedly the biggest club in the country, Kenny was sacked less than one full-season into his role.
For many managers, that would have been a blow impossible to recover from, especially considering Kenny had already had a shot at management across the water in Scotland and that had also failed to go to plan.
However, the revival of Stephen Kenny and famous old Dundalk FC is a story that makes the beautiful game what it is to so many people, and the character shown by Kenny to come back from that Tallaght nightmare proves the Dubliner has the mental strength and personality to deal with any group of players, no matter what the wage packet.
With the likes of John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan and Jonathan Walters all aging members of the senior squad, many have begun to argue that there simply isn’t enough good young Irish talent coming through to expect the success that supporters are asking for from the current management team.
However, all you have to do is look at the Irish under-21 side that were victorious in Baku this week.
Brace hero and QPR star Ryan Manning is a player who has wowed English audiences since his move from Galway United yet he hasn’t got a look in under O’Neill?
In fact it’s hard to remember the last time a genuinely young talent was given his shot among the senior Irish ranks, unlike Wales who have unearthed Liverpool gem Ben Woodburn to great success this past week.
Stephen Kenny has proven time and time again at any club he has been with that he is not concerned with big names or reputations and signed players that simply put “nobody fancied”.
Kenny turned the likes of Patrick Hoban, Andy Boyle and Richie Towell into household names off the back of very bad spells in their respective careers, while Kenny’s absolute faith in a young kid by the name of Daryl Horgan will go down as one of the best transfer buys in the history of Irish football.
In conclusion, Stephen Kenny would not be afraid to give the likes of Manning, Horgan, Maguire and Declan Rice their chance at the top table and more importantly he wouldn’t be afraid to ask these lads to play the game the right way and with the right mentality, as opposed to O’Neill’s negative approach which is stifling our best ball players like Wes Hoolahan and Harry Arter and is holding back the future generation and costing them their chance to dream.
The message from supporters to the FAI is clear, let us dream and Stephen Kenny is the man to let us do that regardless of how our remaining group games play out.