A ‘Free Steven Avery’ banner was on display at the Aviva last night, but unlike the Making a Murderer star, the home fans were at least safe in the knowledge that they only had to endure 90 minutes of imprisonment rather than a life sentence.
The Republic of Ireland produced another abject performance in the 0-0 stalemate with Northern Ireland, having been completely outplayed by Michael O’Neill’s visitors.
Man of the match Darren Randolph came to the rescue once in each half to deny Northern Ireland a breakthrough, while the Republic failed to create any big chances of note.
The Boys in Green have now won just one of their last 10 games – a 2-1 victory over the USA in the summer – and are without a win in the last five.
Unfortunately, it was a night of booing rather than cheering.
Players from both sides did their best to downplay any rivalry between the two teams in the buildup to the international friendly, but that good will did not extend to the stands.
‘God Save The Queen’ was barely audible over the deafening cacophony of boos from the home fans, while the visiting Northern Ireland fans also jeered during Amhrán na bhFiann, and took plenty of delight in abusing James McClean throughout the game.
Each Northern Ireland substitute was jeered, with Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty on the receiving end of a particularly voracious chorus of boos.
Boos also rang around the ground at the final whistle after another uninspired performance, and Martin O’Neill acknowledged afterwards that he can understand the fans’ frustration.
“We didn’t do enough going forward,” he conceded.
“In terms of going forward we should do better. I’m the manager, it’s my responsibility.
“Overall I think the disappointment would be with the supporters. They paid money, and we should do better.”
I have largely defended the 66-year-old manager in recent months but there are no excuses for last night’s performance.
Michael O’Neill has worked wonders with Northern Ireland, but it should not be forgotten that the visitors also came to Dublin in wretched form.
Northern Ireland have failed to score in any of their last seven away games, have been relegated from their UEFA Nations League group, and have only won two of their last 12 in all competitions.
Martin O’Neill possesses a stronger squad on paper, but the Boys in Green were second best from start to finish in Dublin.
There was a lack of creativity, no visible game plan, and a huge lack of confidence from the home side.
Playing with three at the back doesn’t seem to offer the desired solidity at the back, and fails to bring out the best of any of the players in the system. Northern Ireland created two massive chances, carving through the home team’s defence like a knife through hot butter.
None of the three starting centre backs – Darragh Lenihan, Shane Duffy, and John Egan – are ball playing defenders, and none of the three looked particularly comfortable in the system.
All four of last night’s starting defenders play primarily in back fours at club level, and James McClean is a midfielder, so why is O’Neill persisting with this formation?
Lenihan, the only Meath man to ever represent Ireland, endured a torrid night, and had to be bailed out by Randolph twice after making basic errors.
At left wing back, James McClean was full of endeavour but lacked end product, while Seamus Coleman was his usual reliable self on the opposite flank.
Callum O’Dowda – so often the bright spark in recent months, was largely anonymous – while Jeff Hendrick failed to have any real impact alongside him in midfield. Glenn Whelan, captaining the side on his 85th (and likely last) international appearance, drew groans from the crowd with some slack passing.
The 34-year-old veteran was withdrawn in the 34th minute to a warm reception, but his replacement Conor Hourihane struggled to get into the game.
Robbie Brady was far from his best in open play, although his set piece delivery was typically effective.
Callum Robinson cut an isolated figure up front, lacking support, quality service, and the ability to hold the ball up long enough for the cavalry to arrive.
The visitors dominated possession and were far more impressive on the ball, and the Republic never threatened from open play.
There were few (if any) positives to take from the dour draw.
Fans hoping to witness Michael Obafemi’s debut were left disappointed, with the Southampton teenager – who declared his commitment to represent the country of his birth earlier that evening – an unused substitute on the night.
Ronan Curtis replaced Callum O’Dowda at half time to earn his first senior cap, and the Portsmouth striker looked lively without ever really looking like scoring. Sean Maguire came on for Robinson in the second half, but unfortunately had to be withdrawn after picking up another hamstring injury, providing Scott Hogan with a rare chance to impress.
After the game, Martin O’Neill insisted Ireland can arrest this slump, but the signs don’t look good.
Goals – or a lack thereof – remain the main issue.
For the first time in six years, we have failed to score in three consecutive games.
There is no clear identity or game plan in place, and the regression since the run to the World Cup play-offs has been frightening.
Denmark’s 2-1 win in Wales tonight confirms our relegation from League B of the UEFA Nations League, making next week’s trip to Aarhus effectively pointless.
The Danes have topped the group, and Ireland’s relegation means O’Neill’s men will now be third seeds for Euro 2020 qualifying, making qualification even more difficult.
It is unreasonable to expect the Boys in Green to go to Denmark and play Age Hareide’s side off the park, but surely we shouldn’t accept to be outclassed so clearly by Northern Ireland.
Another difficult night potentially lies in store, and O’Neill must be running short on time to turn things around.