In the end it was another point gained, another tentative step towards our first finals in sixteen years. Our unbeaten record was preserved, our chances of topping the group and qualifying automatically, intact. But by Christ, it was a tough watch. I don’t normally envy those men forced to miss the football because of some runt’s birthday party, but at 6pm last Sunday I would gladly have monitored a tense game of ‘Pass the parcel’ rather than watch a minute more of that drivel.
For seventy-odd minutes the Irish football team did their best to send the nation into a gentle coma. A vital World Cup qualifier became a test in endurance, asking more of those sitting at home than those on the pitch. Mercifully there was a late improvement, the familiar calling of the Alamo resulting in an equaliser and almost a winner. It was mostly awful though, truly dreadful, as bad as anything served up during the dubious reign of Giovanni Trappatoni.
But because it’s Martin O’Neill, because it’s Roy Keane, no-one really says anything. No-one points out that it’s like this in almost every game, that the heroic victories over Italy, over Germany, were outliers, rare beacons in a sea of nothingness. They overlook the long-ball tactics, the negativity, the unnecessary caution, the continued selection of Glenn Whelan, and instead point to last year’s Euros, to our standing in the qualifiers for Russia 2018, as if results were the be all and end all.
Look, I’m a realist; I understand that when your star man plays for Stoke and the majority of your squad operate in the lower reaches of the Premier League you can’t expect too much. We’re a small country, football isn’t our number one sport, qualifying for any major finals is an achievement. But is it too much to ask that we be entertained along the way? Oh yes, when Robbie Brady planted his header past Italy’s reserve goalie in Lille last summer I was very much entertained, inordinately so. As I was when Shane Long did similar to Manuel Neuer. The rest of the time? I’ve been a bit bored to be honest.
In a way Martin O’Neill took the Ireland job at the best possible time. He followed the most unpopular manager we’d ever had, a man who spent much of his tenure telling everyone how bad we were and tried to prove it every time we played. It didn’t matter who took over from Trappatoni, they were onto a winner straight away. That O’Neill got us to a major finals at his first attempt merely confirmed that we’d got the right man. The football still wasn’t great but he brought something back, something we hadn’t seen in a long time; a sense of unity, that uniquely Irish fighting spirit, the never-say-die attitude which makes us more than the sum of our parts.
And that was great, for a while. It saw us beat the world champions on an unforgettable night at the Aviva, gave us a couple of memorable moments in France last year, and led to us getting off to a flier in our current World Cup qualifying group. But of late it’s all gone a bit stale. Tasked with playing actual football, with not just sitting tight and hoping to sneak one from a set-play, we’ve fallen some way short. O’Neill, that most genial of men, as charming as they come, has reverted to type, sacrificing creativity for work-rate, refusing to believe in his players, mimicking his predecessor.
But hey, this is not the time for doom and gloom. We’re in place to qualify for our second major finals in a row, something we’ve only achieved once before. And should we get there we’ll undoubtedly give it a lash, ruffle a few feathers. Forgive me for looking beyond that, to the next Euros, and the post-O’Neill era.