Ireland are becoming irrelevant under Martin O'Neill and it's time for change
Even the final frenzy offered little as Martin O'Neill watched helplessly from the sideline.
As Wales defended one last corner, the crowd cheered as Darren Randolph came forward in search of an equaliser. But, as with so much in this faltering Ireland team, the attempt was rushed, slipshod and ineffective. Harry Arter-who had given away the free-kick that led to Wales’s winning goal-sliced the ball wide. Arter then appealed for something, the crowd half-heartedly howled and the referee ended a game that wasn't so much littered with mistakes as a mistake in itself.
For an hour at the Aviva, it looked as if Ireland would slip into mind-numbing irrelevance with another scoreless draw but then Harry Wilson curled in a free kick for Wales and the matter became more pressing.
If a scoreless draw would have allowed O'Neill to look forward to November and point to consolidation after last month's loss in Cardiff, defeat has changed things. And if it hasn't, it should.
O’Neill had offered a glum pre-match assessment of Ireland’s abilities and a manager who was once able to set a team’s mood with perfectly chosen words now seems to be doing the same, but in a less productive way.
Ireland under O’Neill look spent. Maybe all Ireland teams end up believing the most brutal truth about themselves: that the players aren't good enough and can't do the fundamentals. Ireland have become that team, a side looking for inspiration, but shorn of any belief that it will come from within the squad or, more importantly, from the management team.
If Ireland’s intention in the Nations League has been to underline the point that, well, we just don’t have the players, then impending relegation from the competition as it enters the tense November denouement, can be said to have proved the point. But it has been more wounding for O'Neill who cannot continue to deliver underwhelming football that doesn't produce results. Ireland have won ugly under O'Neill but now they are losing ugly.
There were some good signs to begin with as Ireland started with a unified energy. Callum Robinson and Aiden O’Brien were more effective as a front two than Shane Long and Jeff Hendrick. They pressed together, initially at least, and looked poised to punish mistakes. And it was the kind of match where there were going to be a lot of errors.
Wales, without Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ethan Ampadu, lacked the poise that did for Ireland in Cardiff. In its place, they had a flimsiness which Ireland capitalised on in the first hald. By capitalised, it is important to qualify it. Ireland didn’t ‘run rampant’. Indeed, there was nothing rampant at all about anything at the Aviva except for the overwhelming sense of pointlessness, the crushing regret that we were here in the first place, the incessant voice wondering how we ended up in this stadium on a clear and fresh October night and the obvious signs of a national team moving themselves closer and closer towards irrelevance with every doomed misplaced pass.
There were moments of encouragement in the first half which might have been more than could be said about the game against Denmark on Saturday, but they wouldn’t be enough to encourage people to watch this Ireland side or to believe that the management team was building a side to watch again.
Cyrus Christie pounced on a Matt Smith mistake and hit a first time shot with the poise of a natural goalscorer when he might have been better moving closer to goal as if he was a full-back playing in midfield.
Robinson had a shot blocked after the best Ireland move of the game, indeed the best Ireland move of many, many games.
Robinson was the brightest point from Ireland’s point of view, so it was no surprise or a shock depending on your degree of faith in the manager that he was taken off after an hour.
By then, Wales had taken the lead through Wilson and Ireland had to search for an equaliser which was always going to be a more searching test.
They made the effort but there was no composure, no sign of anything encouraging but a manager returning to his old playbook, wishing for one last knockdown that will land at the feet of the right player, but it didn't happen.
And the longer it went on, the longer it became clear that the plan wasn't working, the ball wouldn't land at the right player's feet and the balls launched in hope would land with a deep sense of hopelessness. Ireland have been here before but the need is even more pressing as the side sadly slips into irrelevance.