Nations League: Irish Horror Story or Tale of Redemption?

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It’s a new chapter for the Irish football team but no one seems to have bought the book. Despite UEFA’s attempts to hype up the Nations League, this still feel likes a set of early season friendlies, and with the Rice and Arter sagas, Irish fans are consumed with negativity towards the management duo of O’Neill and Keane. With a glaring lack of quality in the squad, this seems like the same old story with an unhappy ending.

The new Nations League competition looks set to be a slow burner, but it may well take on a greater significance for the Irish football team. If results go well, it offers an early chance to qualify for Euro 2020, a “home” tournament for Ireland with Dublin set to host games at the finals.

Should results go badly against Wales and Denmark, the prospect of being relegated to the lower groups alongside the likes of Cyprus and Estonia will see pressure ramp up on an already under-fire Irish management.

The Arter and Rice affairs have been played out in the full glare of the media. The backlash against Keane is particularly peculiar. The scale of speculation in the press and social media borders on farce.  There have been unfounded claims that Keane questioned Arter’s commitment because he wasn’t born in Ireland. Others speculate that Ireland’s number two was unhappy that Arter was on a treatment table instead of the training pitch.

Let that sink in a for a minute: Roy Keane questioning if one of his players was faking injury.

Doesn’t all this criticism of Keane also seem wildly at odds with all the fervent support he earned for demanding high standards and railing against “mediocrity”? Dare we say those shouting loudest against him now, were most likely his biggest backers circa 2002.

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The manager is also coming under pressure for the style of this Irish team. No one seems to have connected the dots that we were just as bad under Giovanni Trapattoni and the common denominator there is not the manager but the quality of the current generation of Irish players.

Glenn Whelan’s assertion that it was the Italian’s fault that our midfielders couldn’t pass the half-way line and so we were forced to play long ball frankly seems like bullshit now when O’Neill has been in charge for almost 6 years and we haven’t suddenly turned into Brazil (or is is France?) in those intervening years.

In contrast, the way captain Seamus Coleman has carried himself has won universal praise. While Wales are our first opponents in the Nations League, this isn’t about revenge for the Everton man who broke his leg against the same opposition in Ireland’s ultimate failed campaign to qualify for the World Cup. Coleman’s words on Declan Rice were also thoughtful and respectful in the way that James McClean’s were not.

The fact that the tournament in Russia has since been hailed as one of the best ever for entertaining games, surprise performances, and general organisation will not have been lost on Irish fans. It’s hard to see what we would have added to the competition when you look at the quality in the squad named for our maiden Nations Cup game.

Many have said, with such a spread of lower level English league clubs providing the bulk of our players – and a shocking lack of striking talent – that this is one of the poorest Ireland squads we’ve seen in recent memory.

So, with a brand-new competition kicking off that could provide a route to Euro 2020 for the Irish team, the hype machine is not only not plugged in, it’s been taken apart every nut and bolt by a media and Irish support that still seems mired in the humiliation of that World Cup play-off defeat.

It’s the start of a brand-new tale for Ireland, but we’re still reading the scathing reviews from the last edition. We need new inspiration.

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