Ireland And O’Neill Destined For Failure
Many who witnessed the events at Celtic Park Friday night will probably try and play down the significance of what transpired but we should be under no illusions: this Ireland squad will not qualify for Euro 2016 without some outrageous fortune of which we have already had our fair share.
The defeat to Scotland wasn’t so much disappointing as a downright eye-opener. When the final whistle arrived it was like being punched in the solar plexus and having the air knocked clean out of you. Martin O’Neill’s squad hadn’t just lost, they’d lost and been completely outplayed by a decent-but-not-brilliant Scotland side.
The warning signs have been there all campaign, though, that a defeat like this had been just around the corner. Of the 10 goals scored so far – seven of which were against Gibraltar – two of them were scored in the last seconds to snatch four points from the jaws of practical elimination. Whilst the last-gasp leveller against Germany was euphoric and hugely welcome, Aiden McGeady’s superb stoppage time winner in Georgia papered over the cracks of a pretty poor performance in which O’Neill’s tactics and selections left a lot to be desired.
Again at Parkhead, he got it wrong. Playing an archaic, outdated 4-4-2 against Scotland’s more fluid 4-2-3-1, Ireland’s midfield of Hendrick and Gibson were swamped and dominated, chasing shadows for most of their time on the pitch.
Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew mopped up comfortably in central areas whilst the likes of Anya, Maloney and particularly Naismith buzzed around Steven Fletcher up top. It wasn’t until after 68 minutes of concerted Scottish pressure before O’Neill reacted, replacing Shane Long with Brady and reverting to a 4-5-1. By then, it was too late and Gordon Strachan’s men got the goal their efforts deserved. Ireland had 15 minutes left to try and salvage another point but the closest they came was a header off the bar in the dying moments that would have gone down as an own goal: an apt summation of how poor the performance had been.
It’s not all O’Neill’s fault, though. The quality within the squad just isn’t there anymore. Losing a player of the quality of James McCarthy was a massive blow and, whilst many sneer him, Glenn Whelan’s absence was also keenly felt. His tactical nous and calm head would have been welcome in such a blood and thunder game within a cauldron-like atmosphere. Players such as Stephen Ward and James McClean just aren’t international class, either. If the likes of Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney are astrophysicists, the former are your regular primary school maths teachers.
The lack of footballing intelligence that permeates right through this Ireland squad is galling, frankly. Along with McCarthy and Whelan, Wes Hoolahan, one of the very few players with any sort of ability to create, was also injured which left O’Neill shorn of options. What was left to him was always going to be about sheer effort and fortune, and we have already used up much of that luck in the previous few games.
Whilst we do still stand a decent chance of qualifying, optimism is greatly waning. We do retain a number of quality individuals but Scotland possess a far better squad and utilise more modern tactics; Poland, too, fall into that category. Germany are Germany and have the ability to win every group game between now and the final fixture. One can only hope our injury situation improves and O’Neill sees the error of his ways but don’t hold your breath.