Backed into the corner of a corridor at the Aviva Stadium last month, Martin O’Neill came out fighting, putting on a performance far more courageous and convincing than anything his team had produced for him in 2018.
‘We can turn the corner,’ he told his critics, who immediately questioned his confidence.
‘Because I’ll win. I’ll win,’ O’Neill fired back. ‘I’ll be ready and we’ll go through. Simple as that.’
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill (right) and his assistant Roy Keane have been sacked following a torrid UEFA Nations League campaign that saw them relegated
A series of lacklustre performances meant the end for Ireland’s managerial pairing
Ireland will qualify for Euro 2020, really? ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Absolutely.’
Why? ‘Because I’m good.’
That was in the wake of a 1-0 home defeat by Wales, a result which all but confirmed their relegation to the third tier of the Nations League, a competition in which they scored only once and had just 22 shots on goal, fewer than every other team, including San Marino.
But there was always qualifying proper in March, said O’Neill repeatedly, fully expecting to limp through until the spring, in part because of the protection offered by a new two-year deal and salary of around £900,000.
One month on, however, and during the recent international break which brought a pair of goalless and soulless draws against Northern Ireland and Denmark, his bravado had waned.
‘Are you still enjoying it? You seem really flat,’ Sportsmail asked him last week. He protested otherwise, but this time he was kidding no-one.
He was, it seemed, embarrassed that the response to his fighting talk had been a limp stalemate in which they were out-played by Northern Ireland. The FAI, too, had noted the apathy of a half-full stadium.
The pair are likely to go their separate ways now and seek separate managerial posts
Ireland finished bottom of their Nations League group behind both Denmark and Wales
In Denmark, a few days later, O’Neill was tetchy, picking fights with reporters unnecessarily and refusing to allow captain Seamus Coleman to answer a simple question about players taking responsibility.
O’Neill intervened, attempting to give the impression the responsibility was all his.
All the while, however, he wore the look of a man who was no longer happy or comfortable in a role in which he had performed so well for his first four years in charge, taking the team to the last 16 of Euro 2016 and to within one match of the 2018 World Cup.
But since that 5-1 play-off defeat by Denmark one year ago, it has been a fairly miserable existence around the Ireland camp.
Yes, the players are limited, but O’Neill’s strength as a manager has always been in turning water into wine. Assistant Roy Keane helped in that regard, a man revered as a hero by the majority of the squad.
Keane, though, has looked bored in the past 12 months and clashed with Harry Arter in an expletive-laden rant which temporarily forced the midfielder to withdraw from the national team.
The pressure of the sequence of poor results increased the strain on Keane and O’Neill
O’NEILL’S TIME AS IRELAND BOSS
November 5, 2013 – November 21, 2018
Keane’s verbal attack was said to be so severe that several players immediately headed for Arter’s hotel room to offer comfort.
The management duo retained the support of the likes of Coleman, but whispers of discontent have long since been leaking out.
One player told Sportsmail that the team wanted more from O’Neill on the training ground when it came to tactics and preparing for the opposition. He felt distanced from the manager and says they had barely spoken.
News on the 66-year-old’s departure, then, will not be mourned by all.
But what now for O’Neill and Keane? They turned down an approach from Stoke City earlier this year but it is more likely they will go their separate ways, especially with Keane having spoken of a desire to return to management.
O’Neill looks dejected on the touchline as his side drew 0-0 against Denmark on Monday
O’Neill, though, will be drained by the experience of the past year, a period in which his brilliant work of the previous four has been eroded amid a dire run of results and performances.
It should not be forgotten how well he had done, however. Ireland’s talent pool being shallow is not a new thing, and in taking the team so far at the Euros he exceeded realistic expectation.
And the one thing clubs should consider when it comes to O’Neill and Keane is that they both now have a point to prove.
It is time for them to come out fighting once more.