This year a surge of optimism followed a run of strong results in their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, but old insecurities soon crept back in. Ireland may need to pull a joker from the pack
IF the arrival of 2014 gave rise to the suggestion it would double up as a dawn of a new era, then reality has quickly returned to Irish football. Uninspiring performances tend to do that.
While faith in the O’Neill/Keane coalition remains fairly strong, even the most optimistic of supporters would accept that qualification hangs in the balance.
“I always said our destiny would come down to what we do in our home games in 2015,” said Martin O’Neill.
Which is all well and good until you check the record books and list off the number of times Ireland have failed to deliver the goods in Dublin since 2001, when Jason McAteer wrote his name into folklore with the goal that defeated the Dutch.
Slovakia aside, no team ranked in the world’s top 40 have lost a competitive game to Ireland in 13 years and now, all of a sudden, we are expecting jobs to be done against the Scots, Poles and Germans.
Records are there to be broken, though. And O’Neill has a habit of breaking them. As a player he saw Nottingham Forest progress from the middle of the Second Division to the summit of European football.
With Northern Ireland, he captained a team to the quarter finals of the World Cup, to home-and-away victories over Germany and for the majority of another successful qualification campaign in Mexico ‘86.
Then when he stepped into the managerial world, new barriers were broken.
Wycombe Wanderers had never played in the football league until O’Neill brought them there. Leicester had not been to a Wembley cup final since the Sixties. O’Neill got them to three finals, winning twice. Then Celtic. Rangers had dominated Scottish football for the previous decade. O’Neill altered that.
With this in mind, it is entirely believable that he could be the architect of an Irish victory in a competitive game at home against a couple of above average sides. Scotland and Poland, after all, have their limitations.
The trouble, though, is that Ireland appear to have more. The victory over a hapless Gibraltar aside, goals have been a problem for Ireland in this campaign, three of them arriving in the three games against Georgia, Germany and Scotland.
With Robbie Keane showing signs of wear and tear, and Shane Long unable to put a consistent run of form together, you have to wonder where the inspiration will come from.
For years, it was down to Keane, but since 2011, his competitive goals have been almost exclusively reserved for the minnows in each qualifying group, the Faroes, Kazakhstan, Gibraltar, the exception being the opportunist strike he got against Sweden in September last year.
Aware of this, O’Neill dropped him against the Scots. Will he place greater trust in his captain on home soil?
That, along with the use, or misuse, of Ireland’s most creative player, Wes Hoolahan, will be a couple of the more interesting sub-plots of 2015.
For much of 2014, Roy Keane stole the show. Would he go to Celtic? Would Aston Villa impact on his Irish duties? Would the players be affected by the saga surrounding his book ahead of the Gibraltar and Germany games? Would the furore surrounding his row with a fan in the team hotel distract them before the Scottish match?
The official answer was always no.
But inside O’Neill’s head, you have to wonder if, at some point, he has bitten off more than he can chew by having Keane on the management ticket.
Publicly, he considers him an asset. “The way he talks to the players, the advice he gives the midfielders about positioning. How can he not be a positive factor?”
The truth is we don’t know how he is being received and won’t until he clears his desk.
At Sunderland and Ipswich, certain players lived in fear of his sharp tongue and others failed to be inspired. Yet some remain loyalists.
“A lot of nonsense was written about Roy,” said a little-known Irish striker, Roy O’Donovan.
“But he was fair. If you worked hard, you didn’t have a problem.”
Keane’s problem, at Sunderland and Ipswich, was that he didn’t have a figure like O’Neill to curb his excesses.
But now he does and the reality is that O’Neill’s Ireland legacy will be determined by the players he has on the pitch not the assistant sitting next to him on the bench.
That is, when he gets his players onto the pitch. So far, we have seen James McCarthy just once in this campaign, although his recovery from hamstring injuries to play for Everton has not gone unnoticed.
His presence in 2015 will be needed. So too Seamus Coleman’s. Could 2015 be the year of an unlikely hero, a latter-day Alan McLoughlin? If so, David McGoldrick, the creative Ipswich striker, could fill that role.
Certainly something fresh is needed because in spite of the regime change, this latest Ireland manager is pretty much picking the same players as his predecessor.
“There aren’t young guys ready to step up,” said O’Neill by way of explanation back in March.
Jack Grealish seems capable of making the jump, but the bigger leap he has to take in the meantime is to declare for Ireland and reject England’s overtures.
If he did decide to come on board then we could have a joker in the pack for the concluding stages of this campaign.
Otherwise, we’re relying on a group of honest, but fairly limited, men to scrape a result here and there and get enough points to see off either Poland or the Scots.
Third spot and the lottery of the play-offs appears to be the best Ireland can hope for at this stage. You’d take that if it was offered now. Wouldn’t you?
Ireland international fixtures in 2015
Ireland v Poland (Sunday March 29, Euro 2016 Qualifier)
Ireland v England (Sunday June 7, Friendly)
Ireland v Scotland (Saturday June 13, Euro 2016 Qualifier)
Gibraltar v Ireland (Friday September 4, Euro 2016 Qualifier)
Ireland v Georgia (Monday September 7, Euro 2016 Qualifier)
Ireland v Germany (Thursday October 8, Euro 2016 Qualifier)
Poland v Ireland (Sunday October 11, Euro 2016 Qualifier)