- 21 Nov 18
The end of an era has arrived, with the announcement today that the Irish football management team of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane were stepping down "by mutual consent." The decision brings an end to a year and a half of torture for Irish football fans, who watched in dismay as, under the duo's quixotic control, Ireland descended ever more completely into chaos and despair...
It’s over: Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have stepped down.
For five years O’Neill and Keane have been Manager and Assistant Manager of Ireland’s senior football team – and for a long time everything went swimmingly.
The bad cop/bad, bad cop duo gave us some fantastic memories in earlier years - who can forget Shane Long latching onto Darren Randolph’s long ball and firing past Manuel Neuer, and Ireland going on to beat the World Cup winners, Germany 1-0? Or the glory days in France, when all 5’ 7’’ of Robbie Brady rose into the air to head the ball past Salvatore Sirigu to secure another improbably 1-0 victory?
Ireland were eventually knocked out of the Euros by eventual winners France at the last 16 stage. Qualification for the Russia World Cup in 2018 initially looked probable too, but by the halfway point the rot seemed to set in.
Retired goalkeeper Shay Given went public about O’Neill’s disdain for tactical preparation and unwillingness to work on team shape, and this lackadaisical quality began to bear fruit on the pitch.
Ireland – luckily one might argue – scraped to a play-off spot after a 1-0 robbery over Wales in Cardiff. Next, we met Denmark, where the wheels well and truly came off. A turgid 0-0 draw in Denmark was followed by a 5-1 capitulation at home, where playmaking maestro Christian Eriksen thrived thanks to a series of mistakes and O’Neill’s decision to withdraw his defensive central midfielders.
The veil totally lifted, 2018 was truly an annus horribilis for the pair. In the nine games since the loss to Denmark , Ireland have won only one game - and scored a meagre four goals.
In a statement today FAI chief executive John Delaney said: “I would like to thank Martin, Roy, and the management team for the impact that they had with the Ireland team. There have been many highlights during Martin’s reign – none more so than Euro 2016 in France, which will live long in the memory of all Irish supporters.”
By now, however, those memories of France have been totally dulled by the sight of the ever-willing Cyrus Christie in central midfield and James McClean at left wing-back, as Ireland were relegated with barely a whimper to the Nations League Division C.
Questions have been asked too of O’Neill’s handling of the Jack Grealish and Declan Rice affairs - would we have these great talents on board if the manager had been willing to take a chance on them at a younger age?
“I think it is the right thing for Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane to do,” Hot Press editor Niall Stokes says. “And I think it is to their credit at this stage that they have done stepped away with dignity.
“Objectively, the performances of the Irish team under Martin O’Neill over the past two years have far too often been dire, and there has been no suggestion recently of any improvement. In press conferences, he has chosen to blame the players, complaining consistently that they just aren’t good enough. What effect was that meant to have on morale? Besides, it doesn’t wash. Iceland do not have better players than Ireland, and yet they have performed far more effectively in recent years. The same is true of Northern Ireland, who outplayed us in Dublin last week.
"The truth is that our failures have to, in part at least, be down to the erratic – and I think cavalier – way in which Martin O’Neill has managed the team. I found it astonishing, for example, that Harry Arter was left on the bench for the entire 180 minutes of Ireland’s recent games against Northern Ireland and Denmark, while Cyrus Christie – a right-full back – was played in midfield. Not only that: Ronan Curtis, who is currently playing with Portsmouth, in what used to be called Division Three in England, got onto the pitch against Denmark, and ended up in midfield, with a Premiership regular looking on, in what must have been astonishment.
“There was always an element in O’Neill’s thinking that he was somehow cuter than the rest, and that a bit of magical misplacing of players might yield some sort of voodoo effect. But it didn’t happen. The worst example of his strange whimsy was probably the catastrophic substitutions against Denmark in Dublin, when O’Neill brought in Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan for David Meyler and Harry Arter, leaving Ireland without a defensive mid-field anchor – and Christian Eriksen proceeded to run riot.Aiden McGeady was never a centre-midfielder. Or even a Number 10, playing off the striker. As a result, we were torn asunder.
"Stephen Ward – an honest pro, but a left-back or left-sided midfielder – ended up playing centre half, after O’Neill brought on Shane Long, a striker, for Ciaran Clark, a central defender. It all smacked of desperation, and of a King Lear-like response to imminent catastrophe. Ward proceeded to give away his second goal of the night with a bad touch. It was crazy stuff, really.
“What is curious is that Harry Arter, Ciaran Clark and David Meyler all seem to have been treated as personae non grata since that game. In fact there has been no explanation for the decision not to call up Ciaran Clark for the last two internationals. The suggestion of irrationality and grudges was bubbling away, with Roy Keane’s well publicised abuse of Harry Arter fitting the pattern. I suspect that a bit of a siege mentality had developed. Criticism was taken personally. Martin O’Neill reacted very badly, and at times rudely, to being questioned by RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue. It was all pretty unseemly.
“If the team had been getting the results, we could have lived with any and all of that nonsense. But the performances have been atrocious. The team has lacked organisation and cohesion. We’ve been running around like headless chickens a lot of the time. And we haven’t been able to score a goal for love nor money. So a change was desperately needed. That they decided to do it this way at least means that a dream that began in real hope and expectation has ended on a better note than might have been the case if they had insisted on hanging on."
Shorn of the country’s greatest ever goalscoring talent in Robbie Keane and facing a dearth of Premier League quality in the squad, the next team have quite the rebuilding job to do, you might say. Then again, there's enough half decent players for a real managerial maestro to get big, or at least bigger, performances from. We await developments with interest…