The original odd couple cannot be blamed for all of the country's ills, but unless results start improving, starting with Tuesday's friendly against Poland, questions as to their suitability will resurface
Ireland risk going from bad to bad, bad under odd couple of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane
The most charismatic managerial team in international football showed their quotability before they had taken charge of a game. “I’m the bad cop, but he’s the bad, bad cop,” said Martin O’Neill in 2013.
O’Neill and Roy Keane, bringing wisecracks and a death stare respectively, make a wonderful punditry panel. The chances are they could form an entertaining cop show; two mavericks with unconventional methods and outsize personalities would be endlessly watchable.
The increasingly pertinent question for the Republic of Ireland is whether they remain suited to combining at the helm of a failing national side. A team noted for solidity and industry have lost their last two competitive games 5-1 and 4-1. Those defeats, to Denmark in the World Cup play-off and Wales on Thursday, were separated by 10 months, but it remains remarkable Ireland conceded nine times in 117 minutes of meaningful football.
“Why would it be a crisis?” asked O’Neill. Perhaps Tuesday's friendly with Poland will support his case.
The evidence of recent years is that it is dangerous to write O’Neill off. The football has been ordinary for much of his reign, but Ireland have compensated with magnificent moments and memorable results. Ireland were floundering in Euro 2016 qualifying after losing to Scotland. They responded by beating Germany and reaching France. They were wretched in their group-stage defeat to Belgium in the tournament, but conjured victory against Italy to reach the last 16. They were mediocre in 2018 World Cup qualifying but secured a play-off place by winning away in Wales.
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O’Neill has proved his skills as an escapologist, but no one plots a path out of every hole. If there is a question if a double act is growing tired, it may also be that the context has changed. “The system is failing us,” the former Ireland manager Brian Kerr said on Sunday. The underlying problems of a country with a weak domestic league, without a defined, progressive style of play and which can be reliant on its diaspora are all contributing factors to a malaise. The captain Seamus Coleman is a high-class player but perhaps no one else in the current squad is. Their young players are neither especially young nor particularly promising.
When Jonathan Walters was ruled out of the Poland game, it left Ireland with three forwards with a combined total of one international goal (the left-back Stephen Ward was the squad’s top scorer until he, too, pulled out). And even Walters is on loan at the team 23rd in the Championship, in Ipswich Town.
Perhaps fortune has deserted Ireland. The list of absentees includes the seasoned Shane Long, the talismanic James McClean and Robbie Brady, the most potent of the younger generation. Maybe Declan Rice would have withdrawn from contention anyway, considering his options amid an approach from England, yet it scarcely helped that Harry Arter was unavailable after a training-ground clash with a vitriolic Keane.
That force of personality can backfire. It underlined the way that the coaching pair can overshadow players who, in turn, are far inferior footballers than they were in their respective peaks. Part of the rationale for choosing O’Neill and Keane was that charisma could generate an aura that would be inspirational but Ireland, whose midfield and forward line could include five Championship players, can scarcely afford to lose Premier League performers.
Perhaps O’Neill’s feat was to camouflage a gap in ability but it was embarrassingly apparent against Denmark last year and Wales last week. It would be wrong to blame Keane and him for all of Ireland’s ills, but the risk is things go from bad to bad, bad under their odd couple.