Was Martin O’Neill to blame for the poor attendances?

Apathy appears to be the main word to describe the attitude of Irish football fans towards the national team these days.

This may have played a role in the decision taken by the FAI last Wednesday to part company with Martin O’Neill as Ireland manager.

It had been a dreadful year for Martin O’Neill’s men, who ended 2018 without scoring a single goal in their last four games. The final goal scored by the Boys in Green in 2018 was a consolation effort by Shaun Williams in a 4-1 drubbing by Wales in Cardiff back in September (less than a year after Ireland had beaten the Welsh on the same ground to clinch a World Cup play-off).

Ireland played out two goalless draws this international break, most recently away to Denmark last Monday night. However, it was the goalless draw against Northern Ireland last Thursday night – played out in front of a sparsely packed Aviva Stadium – which displayed the apparent apathy of the Irish fans for the national team for all to see.

There was much talk about the empty seats on social media, with many blaming Martin O’Neill’s style of play for people not wanting to go to the game. Interestingly though, the last time Ireland played Northern Ireland in a friendly match at the Aviva Stadium back in 2011, there were only 15,092 people in attendance, compared to 31,221 fans at the Aviva last Thursday night. So were the empty seats at friendly internationals a product of Irish fans tiring of Martin O’Neill, or was this an ongoing issue spanning many years?

Ireland did not play a single friendly international in front of a sell-out crowd at the Aviva during Martin O’Neill’s five year reign. The closest friendly to being a sell-out was the 0-0 draw against England back in June 2015 which was attended by 43,486 people, followed by 2016’s 1-1 draw with the Netherlands ahead of Euro 2016 which was watched by 42,438 spectators.

The fact that no friendly game has sold out at the Aviva Stadium since Ireland’s very first game at the ground back in 2010 against Argentina shows that problems with empty seats at friendly games have deeper roots. Although, it is fair to say that distaste for O’Neil’s regime could still be seen in attendance figures. Those friendly games mentioned earlier against England and the Netherlands had higher attendances than Ireland’s two home UEFA Nations’ League games against Denmark and Wales last month. The 0-0 draw against Denmark on 13th October was seen by 41,220, while the 0-1 defeat to Wales was attended by 38,321 fans. Ireland played both Denmark and Wales at the Aviva Stadium in 2017 also, with attendance falling by 10,000 in the respective games a year later.

Friendly games have mostly been treated with disregard by Irish fans ever since the Aviva Stadium opened back in 2010, even when Giovanni Trappatoni was in charge of Ireland. They are arguably not the best indication of the fans’ displeasure with the manager. The sharp drop in attendances for both the Danish and Welsh games in the space of a year would be more of an indication given they were competitive games.

The next time Ireland will be in action will be in March when UEFA 2020 qualification begins. The draw for the qualification groups will take place in Dublin on December 2nd, where Ireland will find out who they will have to get past in order to qualify for their third consecutive European Championships.

By the time Ireland line out again in March, there will be a new man in charge with former Irish boss Mick McCarthy taking the reigns. A big crowd will of course be expected for the new manager’s first game in charge, especially given it will be a competitive match. However, once Ireland take the field for their next friendly game at the Aviva, do not expect there to be a sell-out crowd.

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