Sitting at their lowest ranking since the system was incorporated in 1993, Ireland football seemed dull, depressing and doomed. Five years under Giovanni Trapattoni had its highs such as qualifying for Euro 2012 and his side possibly deserving of a place at he 2010 World Cup but it was a downward spiral thereafter.
Trapattoni was a national hero of sorts guiding the boys in green to the European Championships but the championships signalled the beginning of the end of the good times for the Irish football team.
Ireland lost all three games at the tournament but Trapattoni stayed on, fair is fair after being pitted in the group of death alongside Croatia and eventual finalists Italy and champions Spain.
It was the following qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup, which was the nail in the coffin for the Italian manager. Ireland mustered up 14 points in 10 games and finished 4th in the group behind Germany, Sweden and Austria.
Trapattoni’s reluctance to play attacking football and overly defensive style seemed to have backfired on the coach, it was a case of living and dying by the sword as he eventually left his post in late 2013.
And so the FAI’s master plan was to bring in a well-respected manager in the form of Martin O’Neill, a man who brought success to Leicester City, Celtic and Aston Villa. O’Neill can somewhat present an image of passiveness to the media and this was counteracted by the announcement that Roy Keane would be his assistant, a dynamic duo to say the least.
O’Neill has always been a defensive minded manager so there was always going to be a level of scepticism about his appointment after the previous qualifying campaign and in the early days of his managerial reign it seemed as if improvements were marginal under the new coaches.
It took a 90th minute Aiden McGeady goal to clinch a win against Georgia away from home and the impressive draw against Germany was soon overshadowed by a loss to Scotland in Celtic Park.
Draws with Poland and Scotland at home meant that the chances of Ireland making it to Euro 2016 were slim to none.
That was until Scotland slipped up against Georgia and Shane Long solidified his place in Irish footballing history after putting the ball in the German net.
As the campaign drew on, O’Neill’s side began to shape and gel as a team and improvements came game after game. A ticket to France was booked after a flawless performance against Bosnia and Herzegovina in a 2-0 win at the Aviva Stadium.
That match showed the one of the most complete Irish performances in recent history and exhibited the reasoning behind the appointment of O’Neill and Keane.
Ireland finished the season in 31st position in the FIFA world rankings, a stark contrast to where they were earlier in 2015 in 67th place, O’Neill’s appointment paid dividends.
And it only got better for Ireland with a memorable EURO 2016 campaign and against the odds now sitting top of Group D on the road to Russia. With the new rankings to be released next week Ireland may lie in 23rd place just one spot behind Netherlands.
It has been a sharp turnaround by O’Neill and the most recent victory against Austria showed everything that O’Neill has brought to the table. Ireland are now in the position where they no longer fear playing creative players like Harry Arter and Wes Hoolahan in crunch games away from home, there is a serious amount of trust in the team’s defence that they can get the job done and with two clean sheets in four games it is hard to argue against this and even in Euro 2016 qualifying Ireland conceded just seven goals in 10 games.
O’Neill now has a team that sets up in a way where they are far from the one-dimensional side that they were under Trapatonni; it is not everyone behind the ball and route ones to the big striker.
Instead, with Hoolahan in the mix Ireland are playing the ball through the centre and with the likes of James McClean in the form of his life for his country, attacking threats are coming from all angles.
Republic of Ireland have never been world beaters on the football field, and the chances of having as talented crop of players as back in 1990 or 2002 may never be seen again, or at least not for a long time but under O’Neill Ireland have taken steps to make this the golden age of Irish football. An age where a team full of Championship and lower half Premier League players exceed the odds game in and game out.