As The Home Nations Prosper, Martin O'Neill's Ireland Are Being Left Behind


These are giddy times for the home nations in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, and there is plenty of praise to go around.

In Wales, they’re merciful for the mercurial input of their one big star in Gareth Bale, but credit is also due to an able supporting cast that includes Aaron Ramsey.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, meanwhile, they’re grateful for the impact of two managers - Gordon Strachan and Michael O’Neill, respectively - who have got the best out of what remain rather limited groups of players.

FBL-EURO-2016-WAL-BEL : News Photo

In Ireland, however, they’re again wondering which of those they’re missing. They now need an unlikely run of results to have any chance of finishing in the top three of their group, after a 1-1 home draw with Scotland meant they ceded all initiative. Is the manager no longer quite up to a challenge like this, as Martin O’Neill’s side continue to look like his dull Sunderland rather than his dynamic Celtic, or do the Irish just not have the players any more?

How much can any country do without sufficient quality, and how much can even a quality squad do without the right manager?

These questions are the crux for pretty much every mid-tier international side, and is all the more engaging because of the fact that squad groups remain so fixed, given you obviously can’t buy players in - some more liberal citizenship laws notwithstanding.

Of course, there is one grand variable in all of this - the draw. It’s hard to deny that Ireland have been placed in the most difficult group of all, as O’Neill has regularly brought up.

Republic of Ireland v Scotland - UEFA EURO 2016 Qualifier : News Photo

His complaint, however, still only goes as far as some of the results Ireland’s neighbours have got.

Wales, most pointedly, have just beaten the team ranked second in the world in Belgium and lead a group that isn’t too far behind Ireland’s in terms of quality.

Northern Ireland may be in a slightly more forgiving pool, but that is offset by their own limited size as a nation, and the fact they’ve done so well against the likes of Romania and Hungary. No matter what way you try and spin it, they’re overachieving superbly.

The same is true for Scotland. They have put in a creditable performance against Germany and secured a supreme 2-2 draw in Poland, all while claiming four points against their most direct competitors in Ireland.

Those latter games brought this entire issue into focus, given how the Irish and Scottish squads are so similar in make-up, but one has looked so full of life while the other has seemed so devoid it. It illustrates how it’s actually difficult to draw a line between the players and managers in such a way, and any success or failure is really a melding of the two.

Scotland do not have anything close to a star in the style of Bale, but Strachan has made them so competitive with a modern hands-on coaching outlook that seems to so perfectly suit limited time with a limited group in international football.

By contrast, an Irish team almost identical in profile look so leaden because O’Neill is employing methods that stopped being effective about half a decade ago. While no-one would argue Ireland should be capable of the kind of quick-silver game that a side like Chile have managed to generate, there is no need to keep restoring to the most one-dimensional form of crossing.

O’Neill’s failure may be marginal, but he has still been at fault.

Republic of Ireland v Scotland - UEFA EURO 2016 Qualifier : News Photo

Of course, many might say the manager is not the common denominator here given that the exact same criticisms were levelled at his predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni, but the reality is that the exact same concerns were raised when the Derryman was appointed.

International football has been just as affected by Pep Guardiola’s 2008 tactical revolution as anyone, and the game now requires a little more expansion, even from the mid-tier teams.

Wales have it through their stars.

Scotland have it through their manager.

Northern Ireland have a canny mix. 

Ireland do not seem to have any of that, and it may mean they do not have a place in Euro 2016 either.

 

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