Three years ago today, Martin O’Neill’s Ireland side beat Bosnia 2-0 at home to seal a place at the European Championships in France. The boom was back, baby.
Fast forward three years and one could not have foreseen the regression that would occur to the Irish senior team under Martin O’Neill’s leadership.
The starting lineup on that memorable night in the Aviva boasted many of the same names that stuttered to a goalless stalemate with Northern Ireland on Thursday night.
Ireland XI vs Bosnia: Randolph, Coleman, Keogh, Clark, Brady, Whelan (c), McCarthy, Hendrick, Hoolahan, Walters, Murphy.
The side would go onto win the hearts of the nation by upsetting the odds and progressing to the knockout stages of Euro 2016. I sat in the press box on that famous day in Lille as Robbie Brady powered home that header. My colleagues, many of whom were overcome with emotion (myself included), united in joy as Martin O’Neill’s side delivered on the biggest of stages.
This, I thought, was the start of a new chapter in Irish football, the beginning of a wondrous period of footballing dominance.
How wrong I would turn out to be.
It was indeed the start of something more sinister, however; the opening chapter in a dark and fallow period for Irish football fans.
There’s a famous scene in Good Will Hunting where Will, played by Matt Damon, is forced by Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to confront the issues that have troubled his youth.
“You see this? All this sh*t, this is not your fault,” Maguire tells Hunting, edging closer. “Look at me, son. It’s not your fault,” he repeats. “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
“Don’t fuck with me, Sean,” responds Hunting, deflective yet becoming more and more emotional, his eyes starting to water.
“It’s not your fault.” Maguire continues to repeat, edging closer.
Eventually, it happens. Hunting breaks down, tears gushing from his eyes.
“It’s not your fault,” he says one last time.
The two embrace, Hunting is inconsolable.
“F*ck them, okay?” finishes Maguire.
As I sat in the half-empty Aviva Stadium on Thursday night, wallowing in the pity of yet another disappointingly stale and disorganised Irish performance, I yearned for Robin Williams himself to raise from the dead and wrap his arms around me.
“It’s not your fault, Richard.”
While the prospect of a united Ireland may seem closer than ever off the pitch, the two teams on it have never been further apart.
One plays with a young, attractive, and progressive style of football, while the other continues to keep our players confined to archaic, disorganised, and hopeful long-ball tactics. In essence, it’s the equivalent of throwing a bucket of paint on a wall and expecting ‘Sunflowers’ by van Gogh to magically appear.
We are capable of so much more, and it is that which disheartens this writer the most.
Seán Óg de Paor, in a TG4 Gaelic football documentary, once said that you can divide players into two groups; those who move the piano and those who play the piano.
It’s clear which category Martin O’Neill feels his players fall under.
With just one win in ten games and the inevitable prospect of our footballing descent continuing to reach new lows, at what point will O’Neill realise that piano players exist in our national squad?
We are capable of creating beautiful music, but just need to be given the opportunity. More Beethoven, less Frank The Removal Guy.
While Northern Ireland have their own issues, namely a run of seven away games without a goal, the stats from Thursday’s excruciating stalemate paint a picture of dominance that won’t be reflected on the scoresheet.
– 58% possession for NI, 42% for us.
– We made 37 clearances, they only had to make eight.
– They had eleven corners, we had three.
– We had four Premier League players in our starting eleven, they had two.
In a week that saw Stan Lee pass away, not even the great comic book writer himself could create a story elaborate enough to help this Irish team escape from the suffocating grip of Martin O’Neill’s outdated tactics. No, not even Batman can save us now.
“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”, mused Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight.
How different Martin O’Neill’s legacy could have been had he walked away after the heroics of Euro 2016.
It didn’t have to come to this.
You can continue to force our Beethovens to push that piano, Martin. Or you can enable them to realise their full potential by letting them make music.
Let them all make music before it’s too late. Who knows what wonderful things might occur.