Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Exactly three years ago to the day, the Republic of Ireland fell to a Scottish short-corner. An uphill struggle to qualify for Euro 2016 ensued, throughout which Martin O’Neill was blessed with an extraordinary glut of good fortune. This was his reckoning.
He does not see it that way. Post-match conversation with RTÉ‘s Tony O’Donoghue revealed a belligerent, weak man, high on self-justification and low on personal responsibility. It is common knowledge now that O’Neill oversees little to no preparatory work at the training-ground. Denmark, led by a rampant Christian Eriksen, made him pay dearly for his consistent laxity.
And for the criminal failure to pursue an away-goal in Copenhagen. O’Neill’s cynical, Mourinho-like, approach to the first-leg, throughout which his risk-averse side willingly surrendered possession came back to haunt him too.
The second-leg began with a good omen, however. After the frenetic opening exchanges, it slowly became clear that the 65-year-old had returned to a midfield diamond; the same diamond that vanquished Bosnia in Dublin two years prior.
Only Wes Hoolahan, the man for whom the system was originally introduced, was missing at its tip. Jeff Hendrick assumed that role instead, with little success.
Its looseness was staggering from the get-go. Acres of space persisted between holder Harry Arter and shuttlers David Meyler and Robbie Brady. Eriksen, peripheral and bypassed on Saturday, was immediately more prominent, even as Ireland’s aggressive midfield press caused he and his midfield partners some early distress.
Denmark manager Age Hareide, speaking after the game, agreed: “Ireland made it a little bit easy for us, because they play in a diamond with two strikers and that left a lot of space for Christian.”
Meanwhile, on the flanks, Hareide’s free full-backs were rescuing their harried central trio with consistent out-ball options.
With no Irish wingers on their tails, both Jens Stryger Larsen and Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen threatened continually. The former almost deposited a Simon Kjaer diagonal, in a rerun of Saturday, while the latter teed up William Kvist’s testing mid-range drive.
Ireland never looked likely to defend the early lead handed to them by Nicolai Jorgensen’s calamitous error. Their lack of compactness continued to present opportunities to the Danes, with Meyler particularly tormented by the frustating Pione Sisto. Cyrus Christie’s headless attempts to compensate also offered up a clear-cut chance for the Celta Vigo man to spurn.
It was a blocked Sisto strike that won the poetic, and equaliser-inspiring, short-corner. It was a case of Celtic Park Revisited, as Ireland again failed to avoid a fatal two-on-one. O’Neill, post-game, implied Arter should have won his one-on-one with Sisto, stating the subsequent ball “still should have been cleared.” Wasn’t me, guv’nor.
At least the presence of two Irish strikers was bamboozling Kjaer and co. The Sevilla centre-back endured a particularly torrid time up against Daryl Murphy, who flicked one chance wide, and teed up Brady’s ill-fated through-ball to James McClean.
O’Neill dwelt on those chances after the game, rather unfairly stressing McClean’s acute-angled opportunity. This was no reckoning, he implied; simply a case of poor fortune at the worst possible time.
Not so. Individual errors that were not punished in Belgrade and Vienna recurred again. Eriksen, completing the fast-break Stephen Ward offered up, ignored the long finger of Lady Luck on his shoulder.
Terrible in-game management, that cost Ireland points against ten-men Serbia and Wales recurred too. O’Neill dumped his shapeless diamond at half-time, along with both defensively-oriented midfielders, exacerbating the problem, and further freeing Eriksen.
It was reminiscent of the barmy closing-stages in Tblisi, when O’Neill crazily attempted to avoid a disastrous draw by leaving McClean and Brady minding the central-midfield house. Here it was Hendrick and Brady. The former’s zone was overloaded by Sisto and Eriksen for Denmark’s third. Again O’Neill was punished, not spared, for his folly.
Minutes before Ward gifted the Tottenham man his hat-trick, O’Neill compounded the sideline madness in grimly hilarious fashion. Now trailing 1-3, he actually reorganised his side right back into the diamond shape he just dismissed! Shane Long joined Murphy up top, with Ciaran Clark sacrificed, rendering Ward a sacrificial lamb at centre-back.
By the time McClean stupidly fouled Nicklas Bendtner for the Danes’ penalty-spot fifth, O’Neill’s second bite at the diamond cherry was almost unrecognisable from a shape perspective. In the absence of guidance from above, the players simply did what they thought their manager wanted.
In many ways, under the Kilrea native’s unapologetically ad-hoc stewardship, that has always been the case. And we all get to enjoy it, and in many cases excuse it, for another two years yet.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112