In the last year, the Republic of Ireland have beaten more higher-ranked opposition than they have done in the previous 30.
Not through root and branch reform has the Irish national side created a team who have beaten Germany, Italy and a Wales side who reached the semi-final of the last major tournament, but through a determined grit served in its rockiest form. It may not always be pretty, but somehow, under Martin O’Neill, they just find a way.
At the Cardiff City Stadium on Monday night, they proved that once again as they overcame a Wales side who dazzled at Euro 2016 and looked on course, after some early hiccups in the group, to take a play-off place: a two-legged affair for which they would likely have welcomed back Gareth Bale.
There’s a strangely emotional twist to the weekend’s international football story, a feeling of kill or be killed that’s not usually present among friends. Whilst England fans yawned their way to another limp 1-0 having already qualified for the tournament, it was a dramatic draw for Scotland which left Gordon Strachan pondering eugenics and allowed both football teams on the island of Ireland to have a shot at making the play-offs. In turn, it was Martin O’Neill’s side who pipped Wales as the Celtic nations battled each other to keep the World Cup dream alive.
The result is surely tinged with a strange hint of sadness, then. Whereas in 2016, all of the nations on these islands except an unlucky Scotland made the atmosphere at the Euros infinitely better, that won’t happen in Russia. A whirlwind weekend could still see only England make it, as both Irish sides surely feel a little bit bad about their qualification coming at the hands of Scotland and Wales in a way that they wouldn’t had they arrived in the play-offs by virtue of defeats from pretty much any other teams.
None of that, however, should be to say that either Irish side will actually qualify. Even after last night, the Republic of Ireland have scored fewer goals than any other side currently occupying the second place in their group, with matches still to come on Tuesday night. They have been poor at times, they have been awful to watch at times, and surely the likes of Italy and Croatia, already qualified for the play-offs, will be hoping to draw them for November’s showdown. On the other hand, the medieval nature of the football on display in Cardiff will perhaps give the more sophisticated other sides in play-offs pause for thought.
Indeed, when you look at Martin O’Neill’s past, you see that staying power, his ability just to survive, find a way and move on is a hallmark of his managerial career. It’s not so much that his sides punch above their weight, but it’s that they do it so heartily when called upon to make an attempt.
Last night’s victory over Wales was just one example. There are countless.
Two League Cup victories with an unfancied Leicester City in 1997 and 2000 were among the club’s biggest achievements until Claudio Ranieri arrived and blew that out of the water with a feat which will surely never be matched. He then took Celtic to a UEFA Cup final, losing only in extra time to Jose Mourinho’s Porto side who would go on to lift the Champions League trophy aloft a year later. It would be over the top to suggest that a couple of year of success 20 years ago should be taken as an indicator of management ability in the modern world, but then modern football doesn’t have many characters like Martin O’Neill.
Closer to the present day, though, you do have to wonder about his last two club appointments. From 2006 until 2013 – the year he took on the Ireland manager’s job – O’Neill was the manager of both Aston Villa and Sunderland.
At Sunderland, he was sacked at the end of March with his side outside the relegation places, before Paolo Di Canio was installed in his place, winning just two of the next seven games to keep the Black Cats in the Premier League by a three point margin and start a downward spiral which saw the North East side finally relegated last season, seemingly after four attempts.
At Aston Villa, decline post-O’Neill is a similar story. He led the Birmingham club to three straight sixth-place finishes, taking them back into Europe and knocking on the door of the Champions League. They had a good side filled with a nucleus of home-grown talent who always seemed to get the job done.
Since his departure, the decline has been sharp. The Villans’ first season without him saw them drop to ninth place, that was in 2011. Since then, they’ve broken the 40 point barrier in the Premier League only once, finishing no higher than 15th before being relegated in 2016 with only 17 points, rock bottom of the division.
Looking at Monday night’s performance from players like Ipswich Town’s Daryl Murphy, Derby County’s Cyrus Christie and Hull City’s David Meyler – O’Neill’s captain on the night – you see that staying power both fallen giants of English football have been missing since they let O’Neill leave their clubs.
Beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder, though few will have fallen for what they saw from Ireland on Monday night. But when Irish fans welcome another big team to Dublin’s Lansdowne Road for a play-off, and when they dream about another scalp and a World Cup in Russia because of it, that will be a fitting substitute. Meanwhile, Villa and Sunderland will look on from disappointing campaigns in England’s second tier.