O'Neill's Ireland need new blood as dismal friendly run sees tumble down FIFA rankings

O'Neill's Ireland need new blood as dismal friendly run sees tumble down FIFA rankings

ON the day after Ireland crashed to a 5-1 defeat to Portugal in New Jersey, Martin O’Neill met a group of reporters and spoke as candidly as he has at any stage of his tenure.

All week he had promised that this would be the day he would address the issue of Roy Keane’s flirtation with the Aston Villa assistant manager’s post, and whether double-jobbing was a possibility.

And he didn’t disappoint. “Yes, there was definite interest,” O’Neill revealed. In fact, he too had spoken to Paul Lambert about the possibility of Keane relocating to Villa Park. What’s more, he volunteered a deadline date — July 31 — by which stage his number two would have to decide whether to stick or twist.

It was a clever strategy. Knowing Keane is box-office news, O’Neill deflected all the attention away from the fact his team had been beaten out the gate the night before, their third defeat out of seven since he took charge, the sixth straight game they had gone without a win.

At this stage, so early in his reign, a bad result or two is forgivable, especially in the context of where and when it happened, in New Jersey at the tail end of a season against a team preparing for the World Cup, while Ireland’s players were packing a bucket and spade and getting ready for a week on the beach.

What’s more, O’Neill essentially was doing the FAI a favour. The association needed the money a hell of a lot more than their manager or players needed the burden of playing a fourth friendly in two-and-a-half weeks.

So this is neither the time nor place to pass judgement, especially as every manager who enters FAI HQ simply has to read the results Brian Kerr produced in his short-lived reign when he sent Croatia, Portugal, Holland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Scotland, Norway, Australia, China, Canada and Jamaica packing, on top of achieving credible draws against Brazil, Bulgaria, Turkey and Poland.

In total Ireland played 17 friendlies under Kerr, winning 11, drawing four and losing just twice. And the FAI sacked him.

There and then, friendly internationals ceased to matter. If a manager knew they couldn’t save his job then they’d treat them with the contempt they deserved. And once the edge was taken off those matches, attendance figures dipped because Irish people got fed up being sold a pup.

Issue closed?

It should be, except that the events of the last eight months have thrown up a number of problems. Firstly, there is the issue whereby FIFA’s rankings now determine the seeding criteria for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

As it stands, Ireland would be grouped in the fourth pot of seeds but worryingly, they are perilously close to being ranked as fifth seeds, which would double the difficulty of qualifying.

Currently considered the 70th best team in the world, Ireland are 18 places lower than Uzbekistan, 12 behind Burkino Faso, five shy of the United Arab Emirates and one beneath Oman. On a bright note, the Cape Verde Islands have just gone through a bad patch and are now five positions worse off.

Inevitably enough then, bad times leads to bad jokes, the worst of them referring to the fact Iceland (47th), Jordan (57th) and Sierra Leone (65th) — a supermarket-chain, glamour model and dead director of spaghetti western movies — are considered by FIFA to be better at football.

Being the butt of people’s jokes shouldn’t really matter but at a time when it is clear that O’Neill’s team needs freshening up, being the possessor of a shabby image is not the greatest selling point when it comes to sitting down with talented players like Nathan Redmond and Patrick Bamford and offering them the possibility of declaring for Ireland or sticking with England.

“In our day people wanted to come and play because we were doing so well,” said Packie Bonner recently. “A successful team is a big attraction.”

And an unsuccessful one is a major turn-off.

Handsomely paid, O’Neill’s task is to reverse the trend and guide us to the European finals in France. It’s not the most difficult of jobs, either.

Germany, world champions and standard-bearers, will almost certainly stroll through in first place but with a second automatic qualification place up for grabs and Poland, Scotland and Georgia blocking our path, it is not beyond reach.

For the Poles, Scots and Georgians, though, Ireland’s recent football history will hardly leave them shaking with fear. You have to go back 13 years — to that barnstorming afternoon at Lansdowne Road, when Holland were outfought — for Ireland’s last competitive win over a team ranked in the world’s top 40.

And since Euro 2012, Ireland’s sole victories — friendly or competitive — have come against Poland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Oman, the Faroe Islands and Latvia — ranked 61st, 91st, 127th, 69th, 184th and 103rd in the world. Reason to be cheerful?