Tuesday 6 December 2016

O'Neill backs his ability to keep the good vibes going

FAI will be praying events in France vindicate decision to agree new contract before Euros

Daniel McDonnel

Published 08/06/2016 | 02:30

It is known that Martin O’Neill had initial reservations about committing to the Ireland job. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
It is known that Martin O’Neill had initial reservations about committing to the Ireland job. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

During his tenure as Ireland manager, Martin O'Neill has liked to throw a curveball. On the eve of departure for Euro 2016, he paired up with his employers to drop unexpected news that brings an end to debates about his immediate future.

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The shock was in the timing. It's not really a surprise that the 64-year-old is staying around for the World Cup campaign.

Despite persistent speculation about interest from alternative suitors, he has dropped enough hints that he is prepared to stick around. The invitation of young players Jack Byrne and Callum O'Dowda into the group for training purposes hinted at a longer-term vision.

Still, the sense lingered that the Derryman was keeping his options open in case events in France turned out to be a complete game-changer.

In the best case scenario, a hugely successful tournament would lead to offers from attractive locations. He recently went on the record to state that he doesn't view the Ireland job as his last gig in football.

Familiar

The worst case scenario is familiar to his employers: a bad tournament that leaves the manager as a lame duck before the start of the next campaign.

Abbotstown officials have been there before. The example of Mick McCarthy in 2002 is slightly different as the football side of Japan and Korea went quite well; it was the other well-documented stuff that left him on a sticky wicket in the autumn.

The really relevant example is four years ago, when Giovanni Trapattoni signed a new deal after steering Ireland to play-off success over Estonia.

It looked like bad business when a tired regime was exposed in Poland, with the laborious player-unfriendly preparations disenfranchising several bodies in the dressing-room.

O'Neill is conscious that Trapattoni was left on the ropes and if Ireland's French adventure turns out to be equally inglorious then it will ask questions of the hierarchy.

Essentially, the decision to reach agreement now is a vote of confidence from the respective camps into how they feel the competition might develop.

Certainly, the announcement puts a slightly different slant on O'Neill's demeanour in Monday's unusual press conference which merged his apology for his 'queers' comment in Cork with a defiant slapping down of an article that questioned his standing in the game before the Ireland job came up.

"When I took this job I turned down three other offers at club level so I wasn't on my uppers," he said. "I took the job because I wanted to do it, it was an honour to do it."

The piece in question had suggested that O'Neill and Roy Keane were acting like men that would not be sticking around, and there are people who know both men reasonably well who believed an exit was possible.

But O'Neill would have known at that point that news of the agreement was imminent.

He has been in relatively consistent dialogue with the FAI about a fresh deal and it's believed there were a few changes from his original contract that needed to be talked through.

In the course of his apology for the inappropriate humour, he dropped in a line about his wish to stay around for 'a while longer' but it was left hanging in the air.

It is known that O'Neill had initial reservations about committing to the Ireland job. He's said as much himself, as he contemplated the switch of pace from club management to the international sphere.

That was a big shift. With his track record, he was always going to receive offers, but he might never have wound up on Irish shores if a secure-looking Premier League post had come onto his radar in the autumn of 2013.

Still, O'Neill was approached by Leicester last summer and opted to stick around, which in itself was a sign of commitment to the project.

Others might have been tempted to jump ship at that juncture considering that Ireland had failed to take full points from the 'must win' date with Scotland.

He mulled over the situation and stuck with a project that has grown on him.

O'Neill has struck up a rapport with Keane and already knew that he could work with Steve Guppy, Steve Walford and Seamus McDonagh - the whole staff has signed extensions.

The manner in which Ireland finished the race to France has increased the confidence levels about the next two years, even if the production line of talent is slow for reasons beyond his control.

It helps that Ireland's World Cup group is lacking in real star quality. Wales are top seeds because the draw was made last summer; their stock has fallen in the intervening period.

Worthy

Austria might cause a surprise in France, and Serbia have an exciting generation that is building towards a tilt at Russia. The opponents are worthy of respect, yet they do not have an intimidation factor.

The FAI need Ireland to be competitive in every qualification cycle to get bums on seats, and a testing autumn with away dates in Belgrade and Vienna made the prospect of a managerial reshuffle unattractive.

There is a gamble attached to their strategy, but entering the tournament with no agreement also had a risk attached.

Ahead of this afternoon's flight to Paris, they believe they have the best man for the job and O'Neill feels it is the right job for him.

Both parties will be hoping they feel the same way when they eventually board the flight home.

Irish Independent

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