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Martin O’Neill agrees contract extension as Republic of Ireland manager

The Guardian logo The Guardian 05/10/2017 Paul Doyle
Martin O’Neill sees ‘exciting times ahead’ for Republic of Ireland after extending his contract. © Rex/Shutterstock Martin O’Neill sees ‘exciting times ahead’ for Republic of Ireland after extending his contract.

The Republic of Ireland have raised the stakes of the final two matches of their campaign by pledging their future to Martin O’Neill. In advance of pivotal games against Moldova and Wales the Football Association of Ireland announced the manager would continue for the Euro 2020 qualifiers, without knowing whether he will succeed in reaching the World Cup.

O’Neill said on Thursday that he believed there were “exciting times ahead”, yet the extension of his tenure, which began in November 2013, will not be universally welcomed. The one good thing about the way Ireland’s form has sagged throughout this qualification campaign is that there is scant risk of complacency when they host Moldova on Friday.

Victory against the country ranked 156th in the world would more than likely make the showdown in Cardiff on Monday a duel with Wales for the Group D runner‑up spot but, bearing in mind Ireland have not mustered a competitive win this year, no one is taking that scenario for granted.

In theory Ireland or Wales could still finish top of the group but that is an even more improbable outcome, as it would require the leaders, Serbia, to suffer an even more dramatic downturn than the one that has befallen O’Neill’s men.

The notion that Ireland have underperformed so far is not one that O’Neill endorses and he can counter it by pointing to the fact Ireland started as fourth seeds in the group and stand in third place with an opportunity to rise higher with two games left. Put it like that and, no, Ireland are not underachieving and it is easy to see why the country’s FA was eager to extend the manager’s contract.

Yet O’Neill goes into the games against Moldova and Wales amid criticism. He describes that as an unfortunate side-effect of his team’s strong start to the campaign: Ireland took 10 points from their first four games, including a 1-0 win in Austria. They were setting a punishing pace at the top of the group and only began to slow down when they lost their captain and best player, Seamus Coleman, to a broken leg following Neil Taylor’s tackle during the 0-0 home draw with Wales in March. The fact calf trouble has ruled Wales’s best player, Gareth Bale, out of Monday's return match between the countries could be construed as some sort of karmic righting of wrongs and a sign that fate might be turning back in Ireland’s favour.

But that is mostly piffle. The criticism of the management duo of O’Neill and Roy Keane has been more for the content of the matches than the results. The suspicion is that the gains Ireland made have been frittered away by an approach that has been negative, headless or both. Nearly four years into his reign, and in an age when managers tend to like to hold forth about projects and philosophies, it is still not clear what O’Neill’s preferred method involves beyond a never-say-die spirit.

Before his new contract was announced he had set out his reasons for optimism over the future. “We’ve looked at the fact that there are some young players coming through – I say young players, I’m talking about mid-20s – who hopefully will take on the mantle of the older players when they drop out of the squad, so I think there is much to look forward to,” he said.

Ireland’s matches tend to follow one of two scripts: either they take an early lead and then back off as if they have committed an embarrassing faux pas, as in Georgia last month; or they start sluggishly and then stage a late rally, as in the home draw with Austria in June. Seldom have they have been good for 90 minutes. A lack of control has been a recurring feature. A sensible default prediction for almost any match involving Ireland these days is a draw, because without being defensively sound, they are cussedly hard to beat and grievously lacking in creativity.

All of which brings us inevitably to the case of Wes Hoolahan, still a cause célèbre in his country. The 35-year-old Norwich City schemer remains the most likely player to give Ireland invention and thrust from open play. But O’Neill is reluctant to start him in away matches and, like his club manager, doubts he can start two intense games within the space of several days. By that reckoning, if Hoolahan were to start against Moldova, he would seem unlikely to line up against Wales. But Ireland urgently need creativity against Moldova, especially with Robbie Brady and James McClean suspended and Jonathan Walters injured.

They also need someone to convert any chances that are created. Shane Long, though a fitness doubt earlier in the week and with a goal for club or country since February, is likely to start against Moldova. And O’Neill, whose lineups always difficult to second-guess, may also decide that Ireland’s need is so great that he will have to place his trust in one or more inexperienced forwards by giving international debuts to Preston's Sean Maguire or Aston Villa’s Scott Hogan.


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