Talking point: Little has changed in method or style for an Irish regime which has run out of inspiration
Ryan Giggs was six-years-old when Martin O’Neill won the second of his two European Cups with Nottingham Forest, as the Irish manager once again reminded us this week.
Last night, the virgin manager thoroughly out-smarted his 66-year-old rival, delivering a tactical master-class, driven by an energetic young side led by a sparkling talisman.
As Germany in Dublin did for Giovanni Trapattoni, San Marino for Steve Staunton, Russia for Mick McCarthy, Cardiff staged a burial ground for O’Neill’s international career.
So soon after the tactical suicide against Denmark in the World Cup playoff, O’Neill remarkably replicated the calamity by presenting an Irish team who were yet again so hopelessly out-manoeuvred in midfield.
Callum Robinson, unwilling or unable to function as an auxiliary aid to a listing midfield, suffered a scarring debut.
Teams represent the character of the manager; this Ireland were lacking in direction, organisation and belief. The scoreline may have been a shock to some, less so to others who believe that it is impossible to continually attempt to get away with slack preparation and wavering commitment.
What happens on a field of play is a representation of what happens on the training field. Last night’s evidence brooked little extensive examination of the haphazard preparation that has been apparent for too long now.
This was supposed to be a beginning of a new era. Instead, it bore all the hallmarks of one that has reached a resigned, desultory ending.
O’Neill is hoping to convince Declan Rice that his country wants him; the country now may take some convincing that it wants O’Neill.
Last year, Denmark more than hinted that this team were at once disconnected from their manager and also their supporters; hoping against hope to repeat the smash and grab win last October here was simply an exercise in delusion.
Subsequent events ensured that Ireland’s last trip to Cardiff 11 months ago now prompted merely a memory already too faded to be familiar and too sparkling to be enduringly credible. The team’s footballing identity, and brief, wonderfully noble bond formed with its supporters on the fields of France a year earlier had been all but extinguished on a night of calamity authored chiefly by Christian Eriksen.
While pessimism always marked the conclusion of a failed campaign, the beginning of a new one should naturally invoke optimism.
However, even this was in short supply this week as the spotlight shone not on those who would be playing for Ireland but on those who wouldn’t, including those on an ever-lengthening injury list.
Not to mention the perpetual anxiety about what exactly O’Neill and his management team could engineer to develop their side’s personality on the field, rather than restrict it.
The manager’s constant reminders to a growingly sceptical audience of his European Cup winning exploits had failed to endear itself to ears at lofty Stoke City, which begged the question how relevant his deep-rooted commitment to his past might colour his and Ireland’s future.
Rather than changing the manager, the manager now needed to change himself. Except he seems incapable of doing so. A good performance, or more succinctly, a good result, would paper all cracks, as has been the way for O’Neill.
Ethan Ampadu, 17, typified the early energy of a Welsh side and was central to their blistering start and lead goal.
Ireland’s defence had remained untroubled by the pre-match brouhaha and so it was a surprise that one of its linchpins, Ciaran Clark, so loosely allowed Tom Lawrence to run in to a vast acreage behind him.
It was less of a surprise that the formation, pitting two midfielders against a narrow three, had resulted in the naïve Robinson failing to slot back into midfield to stem the move.
Conor Hourihane passed on the message vocally but might have also been minded to reproach himself, too.
And so Ireland resigned themselves to an almost familiar, default position, one of siege mentality as O’Neill had presciently posited beforehand.
Wales maintained their sharp, incisive, invigorating approach, their front three rotating menacingly; meanwhile, Jon Walters, as Daryl Murphy had here last year, loitered without intent.
Nothing, it seemed, had changed from last year or the year before.
Jeff Hendrick, a player who neatly encapsulates the malaise, succumbed to his frailty and immediately exposed his team’s.
Another of his poor international touches ceded possession and suddenly Wales were rushing through the vast hole in the middle of the field; two versus two, Bale beating Ward to the space.
The result was inevitable, aided swiftly by Clark’s pliability in allowing the Real Madrid man to switch inside to his left foot.
Barely a quarter of the match gone and Ireland were doomed. Organisational defiance had helped Ireland counter long odds in the past; here, they lacked any sense of cohesion.
Compared to the listless visit to Wales, when Bale rarely threatened and his midfield showed little animation in passing, this was a radical transformation, a tribute to Giggs’ immediate impact.
Their third goal franked it; a high midfield press – something Ireland never attempt – saw Ampadu thieve the meandering Walters; his precise pass to Allen finished Ireland.
And probably O’Neill.