Ireland end of year review: O’Neill and Keane need to step up or 2015 will be damp squib

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It always seems to be the way, but Irish football has more questions than answers as the year comes to an end

No, the ever dwindling number of Irish players at the game’s elite level is not main one –  that problem is present at the end of every calendar year.

As 2014 draws to a close, there are more immediate issues to address, and they centre on the stewardship of the national team.

Martin O’Neill, the decorated manager, and Roy Keane, the most high-profile assistant manager in the history of football, face a crucial year. If 2015 in any way mirrors this year, then the national team could be steering into the abyss.

The focus on numerous off-field events dwarfed the attention afforded to Ireland’s performances this year.

O’Neill and Keane were dubbed a ‘dream team’ when appointed in October 2013. In terms of profile and column inches, the two men have lived up to their billing. Yet has the Irish team really progressed from the final days of Giovanni Trapattoni? It’s still relatively early days but missing out on Euro 2016 is now a real possibility.

Keane is such a controversial and compelling figure there will be possibly never be a time when interest in his life wanes. It certainly hasn’t been boring, but so far there are few hard facts that suggest the assistant manager’s coaching input outweighs the attention his presence generates.

The players and O’Neill say Keane is a positive presence on the training ground and he very well may be.

Yet during his time as a television analyst, the Cork man rarely seemed concerned with the tactical aspects of the game and, when manager of Sunderland and Ipswich, he frequently delegated coaching duties to his staff.

Keane undoubtedly possesses vast football experience and knowledge, but it was never apparent that he was destined to be a coach. There has been talk amongst fans, and media outlets, that Keane is perhaps more suited to international management, citing his potential ability to inspire and extract performances due to his direct nature and charismatic presence.

However, even at the Irish team’s lowest point no one could ever validly claim they lacked motivation. The players need coaches to frame and harness their enthusiasm, to wed it with a cohesive tactical plan, designed to make the side greater than the sum of their parts. It remains to be seen if Keane can contribute to this. There was little sign of such during his time as assistant coach at Aston Villa.

Roy Keane is spoken to by an official 14/11/2014

What is in no doubt whatsoever though is Keane’s position as a lightning rod for attention. O’Neill, while at times appears tetchy at being constantly asked about his deputy, evidently feels it is worth the cost, possibly because it has distracted from some of the side’s failings.

The manager would no doubt immediately dispute this. Fans would have just cause to cite Ireland’s result against Germany – the most an Irish fan has had to celebrate in years – as evidence for O’Neill’s positive influence on the side.

However, Ireland’s performance in the Scotland loss points to a number of pressing concerns. The team is essentially in a mini-group with Poland and Scotland. Without being overly presumptuous, the mighty German machine will spark into life next year and bulldoze their way to Euro 2016.

Every team will defeat Gibraltar, and, barring an upset, Georgia. This leaves three teams fighting for two spots, one of which being a play-off place. Currently Ireland are trailing and appear the weakest.

Before October’s tie against Ireland, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan said he and his counterpart were ‘old-fashioned‘. Ireland’s tactics during the game seemed archaic. O’Neill opted for a 4-4-2 formation, with Shane Long and Jonathan Walters up front, dropping main goal threat Robbie Keane to the bench, and leaving Ireland’s midfield outnumbered.

Charlie Mulgrew was made to look like some highland Xavi as Ireland struggled to pick up the roaming Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney.

Granted the Irish team were weakened by the absence of their first-choice central midfield pairing, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, but all the more reason to start a third player in the position. It had seemed the only reason to play such a formation was to accommodate Robbie Keane, yet the game was the first time in 13 years he had failed to start a qualifier when he was available.

Ireland’s tactical frustrations were further compounded by the stunting of Seamus Coleman’s attacking outlet and, at the times, the team were reminiscent of the worst elements of the Trapattoni years.

Hitting long-balls, yet not backing them up with pressure from midfield, cautious and overworked, Ireland fatally switched off as Scotland scored a well-executed goal. There is an argument to be made such a moment is a reflection of the work carried out by the respective management teams. If so, Ireland’s came up short.

Anyone who has followed O’Neill’s career will be familiar with his exuberant touchline antics and ability to raise the performances of his sides.

He was touted as one the game’s brightest managers and had fantastic success with Celtic and Leicester City.

After returning to England his time with Aston Villa ended acrimoniously, before his career seemed to bottom out at Sunderland. The Germany result pointed to a potential managerial renaissance for O’Neill, but the Scotland game further emphasised the evidence present before he took the Ireland job. It seems as though the modern game has surpassed him.

Martin OÕNeill reacts in the closing stages 14/11/2014

A sea change occurred in football in 2008. Spain’s team of small, technically gifted players blazed a trail through the European Championship.

For years midfield had been deemed the land of the giants, physicality ruled as Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard and Roy Keane became the benchmark for the position.

Being a good footballer alone was not sufficient; players had to be lung-busting athletes. Spain broke the mould. When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona swept all before them in 2009, winning a historic treble of titles, it was confirmed; a new phase in football had begun.

Managers and teams were forced to adapt or perish as the dominance of both sides continued over the next five years. The current world champions are a hybrid of the two styles, combining German physicality with Spanish technique.

From Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to Liverpool, Southampton and Everton in the Premier League, to the national teams of Chile, Italy and Japan, the influence of Barcelona and Spain remains omnipresent throughout world football.

Teams can be viewed as either being influenced by this change, or a reaction against it and most managers operating at the elite level, including international football, have adapted. Even if it is at a most basic level of not allowing the team’s central midfield to be outnumbered in favour of a more physical presence up front.

However, judging by his final days with Sunderland, and Ireland’s display against Scotland, O’Neill seems rooted to the past. He still seemingly favours the traditional ‘British’ style of 4-4-2, laced with physicality and effort and designed to hit a big-man up top early. O’Neill was, after all, Emile Heskey’s manager for over six years of his career.

He approached the Scotland tie as though it was a traditional ‘British’ derby game and was tactically outwitted by Strachan. One could argue Ireland do not possess the players to play any other way. But they would probably say the same about Scotland. In a game of apparent equals, the Irish team were made to look distinctly the lesser of the two.

2015 will be the most pivotal year for the Irish national team in recent memory. There are crucial qualifiers against Poland and Scotland, as well as Germany and a high-profile friendly with England. The prize at stake is qualification for Euro 2016, which has been expanded to 24 teams, almost half of the teams in Europe.

If Ireland fail to qualify, it will surely be the lowest ebb of the Irish team. Even Keane’s presence will not be able to deflect from that.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

The 10 Most Memorable Football Moments of 2014

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What a year it’s been for football.

2014 saw the best World Cup in recent memory, one the most exciting Premier League title races ever and the most unlikely Ireland result in the most dramatic of circumstances. This year had so many unforgettable football moments, here’s our 10 most memorable.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

10. Luis Suárez’s second goal against England

Uruguay v England: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

The then Liverpool forward underwent knee surgery on May 21st, was expected to be out of action for six weeks but returned on June 19th to effectively knock England out of the World Cup. As the game was entering its final minutes, Luis Suárez was hobbling around the pitch, no-where near full fitness, but instinctively reacted to a misplaced Steven Gerrard header, went through on goal and smashed the ball home.

A fantastic World Cup moment, full of narrative and drama, the camera panned from the ecstasy of Suarez and the Uruguayans to the despair of Gerrard and England. A man who’d been in a wheelchair weeks before crushes a nation’s hopes.

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9. Eamon Dunphy curses live on air during the World Cup. Eamon Dunphy 17/5/2012RTE have just come back on air before the game between Brazil and Mexico in the World Cup. ‘The pitch was a fucking bog’, Eamon Dunphy doesn’t seem to realise it though. ‘You can see the level of expectancy,’ Bill O’Herlihy notes to the panel. ‘When Neymar was shaping up to take that penalty’ Dunphy continues, ‘I thought he was fucking… dreading it’.  The host takes a sharp intake of breath as Dunphy curses and it becomes apparent, the pundit has dropped a series of F-bombs on live television. Even by his own Olympic-like dedication and mastery of saying controversial things, this was a special moment.

‘We’re on air?!’ , O’Herlihy asks.‘Oh we’re not, are we?!’ Dunphy says, squirming in his seat and momentarily raising his hand to cover his mouth. Bill awkwardly laughs it off and when the programme returns from a break Dunphy says sorry for his slip. But, like a schoolboy apologising for misbehaving, Dunphy has a twinkle in his eye and you know he’s not really sorry. Never change Eamon.

8. James Rodriguez goal against Uruguay Colombia v Uruguay: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup BrazilJames Rodriguez was already the best performer at the World Cup before the last-16 tie with Uruguay. The Colombian had scored two and and assisted two in the group stages, but this goal raised his profile to superstar level. Rodriguez drifted into a pocket of space between Uruguay’s defence and midfield, took a quick glance towards goal before cushioning a pass with his chest and, in one motion, turned and volleyed a peach of a shot in off the underside of the bar. Rodriguez nonchalantly saunters off and signs for Real Madrid for €80 million a few weeks later. A star is born.

7.Sergio Ramos last minute Champions League final goal against Atletico Madrid Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final La Décima, the title Real Madrid, a club that has everything, craves more than anything is about to be lost to their city rivals. Atletico Madrid, the plucky underdogs, upstarts who were not expected to get anywhere near this stage, are seconds from completing the most improbable of league and Champions League doubles. Real need a hero.  https://vine.co/v/MdjJlggWwVw/embed/postcard

Sergio Ramos, like some Iberian Chuck Norris, arrives to save the day. Out jumping everyone, the defender powers home an equaliser and sparks manic celebrations for Real.

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6. David Moyes gets sacked by Manchester United

West Ham United v Manchester United - Premier League

A highly regarded manager becomes a laughing stock as years of hard work is forgotten in months, a dream job becomes a nightmare and one man gets the blame for turning the Premier League champions into also-rans. ‘The Chosen One’ became ‘The Wrong One’. Poor David Moyes.

There were so many moments of Moyes in 2014, with each passing week Manchester United appeared to sink deeper into mediocrity as the ghost of Alex Ferguson watched on from the stands and their manager seemingly aged years in the process. When the inevitable happened, and news broke that United would part company with the Glaswegian on April 21st, Moyes was no more sacked than put out of his misery. Although handled pretty poorly by the club – journalists had told him of his sacking before the club did – releasing Moyes was the humane thing to do.

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5. Luis Suárez bites Giorgio Chiellini Italy v Uruguay: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil When a person does something for the third time, you’d imagine it wouldn’t be all that memorable. However, when that someone is Luis Suárez, the action is him biting an opponent on the pitch and the stage is a crucial World Cup game with millions watching, it becomes unforgettable. Suárez almost broke the internet. Reactions went from shock, to laughter, to indignation, and back again. The maddest of Suárez’s many mad moments, and one unlikely to be forgotten soon.

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4. Steven Gerrard slips

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League

As cruel for Liverpool fans as it was funny for Manchester United fans as it was unforgettable for football fans. Steven Gerrard slipping in the decisive game on their unlikely title push was the Premier League’s most memorable moment of 2014. Just two weeks previously, Anfield was rocking as Liverpool beat eventual champions Manchester City 3-2 on the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. A tearful, exhausted Gerrard addressed his team on the Anfield pitch, and told them ‘this does not slip’.

In the next game at the ground, he slipped. The dream of Liverpool being crowned champions for the first time in 24 years was gone. Gerrard, the one-club man, the team’s hero over 15 years and symbol of the club became the victim of the most cruelest of ironies.

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3. John O’Shea’s last minute equaliser against Germany

John O'Shea celebrates scoring 14/10/2014

Ireland are trailing to the world champions, there are seconds remaining on the clock and it looks like they’ll be returning home with nothing. Up steps John O’Shea, wearing the captain’s armband, on his 100th cap to guide home a deft finish. Incredible stuff. Ireland nick a point from the mighty Germany and fans of the Irish team have something to sit alongside the great moments of the past.

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What made the goal all the sweeter and more memorable is the lack of such in a moment in recent Irish football history. Not since Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Italy in 2009 had there being such a moment of pure, explosive joy for followers of the national team. The crushing disappointment of Euro 2012 carried on into a equally depressing qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, when Ireland were hammered 6-1 by Germany. If we were compiling a list of most memorable Irish football moments, there’s no doubt John O’Shea’s last minute goal against the world champions would be in first spot.

2.Van Persie’s goal against Spain

Spain v Netherlands: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Robin van Persie’s goal was breathtaking, a truly unique piece of skill rarely seen before or unlikely to be repeated. Daley Blind’s diagonal ball was precise and perfectly weighted, but Van Persie’s movement and speed of thought was stunning. When watching the replay it’s almost as though you can see the cogs in his head working.

The Dutch striker arrived onto the ball just inside Spain’s penalty area, having run off their flat defence, and seems to instantly measure the distance between the goal and Iker Casillas. He then leaps at the ball, almost performing a corkscrew motion to send it over the stranded goalkeeper.

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The goal itself is unforgettable, but, when considering the wider significance of the moment, it becomes even more memorable. Van Persie’s header was the exact moment the aura of the World and European Champions, the most dominant international side in football history, was shattered. Until that point Spain were leading 1-0 and were cruising and the Netherlands had barely a kick in the game. The Manchester United striker’s goal burst Spain’s bubble.

An incredible act of skill, athleticism, speed of thought and execution, a goal that will be replayed for years to come. It’d make you wonder how the hell van Persie, after scoring such an amazing goal, then lacked the co-ordination to properly high five Louis van Gaal.

1.   Germany destroy Brazil

Brazil v Germany: Semi Final - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Football’s JFK moment. A seismic event that saw a simultaneous dropping of jaws across the globe. This game was the most tweeted about sport event of 2014, but transcended football or sport, it was as though we were watching a nation disintegrate in front of our eyes. Germany were as relentless as Brazil were hideously awful.

The hosts had bulldozed their way through the tournament, playing awful football and almost kicked their opponents Colombia more than the ball in the Quarter-Finals. When Thomas Muller opened the scoring you could see Brazil deflate, like a bully who’d been hit back for the first time, their perceived confidence had been shown to be bluster. David Luiz went rouge as the team crumbled and no-one could believe what they were watching.

Not only the most memorable football moment of 2014, Germany’s demolition of Brazil is the most memorable football moment of the 21st century and, it could be argued, potentially the most memorable football moment ever. Brazil’s collapse will never be forgotten.