They say it’s the hope that kills you.
For the first 40 minutes on Saturday, Ireland played with the sense of directness and urgency, the passing and general movement, that had been sorely lacking from an Irish team for the past few years. Where was this Ireland in Glasgow last November? Why couldn’t they have started like this against Poland instead of it being forced out of them by trying to cancel out Pesko’s opener? They looked like they had finally woken up and were doing the necessary. Then they went and did the thing that no Irish side can seemingly cope with – they went 1-0 up.
The fact that Scotland equalised so quickly in the second half makes it hard to fully determine exactly how differently Ireland would have performed if they had that lead to protect for more than eight minutes, but the fact remains that Ireland’s response to that John O’Shea own goal was, depressingly, to revert to type. For whatever reason, the Irish team psyche folds like a house of cards under any sort of pressure.
In effect, the turgid second half display undid all of the good work of the first. We witnessed the best and the worst that this Irish team has to offer and the result is that once again this squad could not do what was required of them. The worry now of course, and one that is fast approaching the line of general consensus, is that Martin O’Neill will never be able to sufficiently motivate or organise this group of players.
That is what O’Neill should be judged on, and that is where he is failing in his remit. It may sound overly harsh considering the calibre of player he has to work with, but the fact remains that Ireland faced off against a Scotland who, on paper, are their equivalent, and have come away with just one point out of a possible six. It seems that unless a team are so far beneath Ireland’s level that not winning is almost impossible, then they struggle, and will probably at best end up drawing 1-1.
It wouldn’t really be fair to fully blame O’Neill for the squad possessing that mentality – after all it has afflicted the squad under every manager since Mick McCarthy – but likewise, neither he nor Roy Keane have done enough to suggest that they deserve to have their contracts renewed at the end of the current qualifying campaign. By O’Neill’s own reasoning, he is ultimately to be judged on whether or not Ireland qualify for the newly-expanded European Championship – at the very least to make the playoffs – and for now that seems fair. It is the criteria by which each of his immediate predecessors has been evaluated on and there is simply no argument to keeping him on just for the sake of it.
This is why, despite remaining just two points behind Scotland and mathematically still very much in with a possibility of overtaking them, it all just seems so unlikely. The pessimism that enshrouds the team is now as bad as it has been at any point in the past two decades, and there is nothing to suggest that the mood will be lifted any time soon.
All of this paints an extremely desolate picture of the state of Irish football and ultimately exposes it for what it is – an unworkable development system that has been living on fumes for years now. According to the most recent Sports Sentiment Index, football remains the most popular sport in Ireland and yet there seems to be such a vast disparity between that popularity and turning that into a tangible footballing structure within the country. The well is running ominously dry in terms of genuine Irish talent and it’s only going to get worse unless something radical is done. The policy of sending players to England at a developmental age is only beneficiary when there is scope for real progress, and in an age where these clubs’ young indigenous English players are struggling to get a look in, what hope do the Irish players have?
All of which leads back to the fanciful notion that perhaps the FAI should look beyond the overreliance on English clubs to train young Irish players and coaches, and focus on improving the facilities and structure within their own jurisdiction – and that includes the domestic game. The League of Ireland is being treated like the unloved child of the FAI, and a situation where the clubs within are more likely to go out of business than produce international players is a state of affairs that John Delaney should be deeply embarrassed by.
Short-term thinking has led the Irish national team down the hole it’s currently languishing in, but only long-term planning will help them claw their way out. It might be utterly frustrating to watch so-called “weaker” sides like Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland compete in France next summer while Ireland once again miss out, but it might finally be the straw the broke the camel’s back in terms of revamping.
It’s going to get worse regardless; if it has to get there faster before it finally improves, then so be it.