Sunday 22 October 2017

Little prospect of truce as Martin O'Neill's dispute with Ronald Koeman rumbles on

McCarthy injury saga has created an almost unique feud involving an Ireland manager

Everton boss Ronald Koeman has not held back in his criticism of the Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and his medical staff.
Everton boss Ronald Koeman has not held back in his criticism of the Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and his medical staff.

Colin Young

Ronald Koeman finished his statement took off his glasses, stuck one end in his mouth and took in the room, waiting for the first question. He knew what was coming. James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman, Martin O'Neill . . .

The man with the microphone from Sky made the opening contribution as the press conference in Everton's blue media room at their Finch Farm base resumed. The questioner included all three main protagonists.

Koeman was reluctant to engage in any further analysis or debate. "It is now for the club, Everton. It is not my business. I am not surprised. But I am disappointed. I don't want to make any more discussion about this. It's over. Let's talk about a nice challenge tomorrow." (The small matter of attempting to end an 18-year winless run at Anfield yesterday that ultimately came a cropper.)

When the TV cameras were off, and the written press gathered around the Everton manager, the subject returned to the Irish camp's involvement in the injury crisis which left Koeman down to 17 fit outfield players. "Was it his (McCarthy's) responsibility?" Koeman did answer. "Finally, the player by himself is responsible and that is the talk I had with James. He needs to learn from his mistakes and hopefully this will be the last one. He can be out for five or six weeks."

Koeman was then reminded that McCarthy's future looked doomed at the start of the season. He was substituted before half-time in one game but then he had played his way back into the Everton team and the Dutch coach's long-term thinking. And then this . . .

Had it changed his opinion on him? The Everton manager was still happy to keep talking. "It's too early now to make conclusions about this," he said. "It is more a decision for the end of the season."

Attention then turned to the Colemans. Chris in particular. Had the Wales manager called him?

"No, why?"

"Because of the tackle on Seamus."

"He doesn't need to call me."

"And what about Martin O'Neill?"

"No."

By this time, the Ireland manager and the rest of the world were aware that Koeman had poured fuel on his feud with O'Neill and the FAI medical team after starting his pre-Merseyside derby press conference by reading from his prepared notes.

It was not a statement, Everton's media department insisted, but Koeman spoke for 22 seconds short of three minutes without interruption and he just wanted to make sure he made his point and no mistakes. He made his point. O'Neill was furious. And what will have angered him more than any so-called unfathomable personal feud with Koeman - their paths have never crossed - is the attack on McCarthy and Ireland's medical staff.

Determined to protect Dr Alan Byrne and a team who are renowned throughout Europe as one of the best available to an international squad, O'Neill produced the theory that the hamstring problems go back further than Koeman's initial objections to his midfielder's treatment with Ireland in October. His barbed response, with details he would have preferred to remain private, may not have taken much time, but the Ireland manager and the FAI deliberated long and hard before releasing it. They hoped it would be the end of the matter. Koeman's tweet late on Friday night suggests otherwise.

So far, any efforts to reconcile O'Neill and Koeman - and this was before the Wales game - were made through a third party, close to Koeman, and those efforts were not fruitful. O'Neill approached Everton's head of media, Brian Doogan, a former journalist who he employed in his days at Aston Villa and who he hoped could be relied upon to pass on messages and numbers. Koeman did not make the call. And O'Neill is really not bothered about that.

But the matter may go to a higher level within the club now. Everton have always enjoyed a good relationship with the FAI and there are concerns in both camps that it has been damaged, particularly by the criticism of departments normally kept out of the spotlight.

In the immediate aftermath of Seamus Coleman's dreadful injury, his captain was O'Neill's only concern. Even the point to keep Wales at bay was irrelevant. Koeman was the last person on his mind.

James McCarthy was different. The contentious issue of McCarthy playing two Ireland World Cup qualifiers in four days against Moldova and Georgia in October was first aired by Koeman when McCarthy was ruled out for three weeks after suffering a hamstring tear in training.

"I would like to have more commitment from the player of Everton because we pay the player, but he was in a very difficult situation.

"It is ridiculous that he has surgery, five to six weeks out, three training sessions, plays 90 minutes and then, after three days, he plays another 80 minutes. I don't do this to my players at Everton because you get injuries again.

"You hope something like this would be solved by the understanding of the doctor of the Ireland team or the manager of the Ireland team. They asked him if he was ready to play. It is very difficult for a player to say no, because he is in Ireland.

"But sometimes, in several cases in fact, you like to have a little bit more understanding for a player who has been out injured for five to six weeks. Play him for 45 minutes, 60 minutes but not 95 minutes after five to six weeks out. The second time 80 minutes. You are killing the player."

O'Neill responded on that occasion too, bristling at the criticism of him and the medical team by the Everton manager, who had raised objections to McCarthy's initial call-up when he had not played for his club since August due to groin surgery.

He said: "I have been involved in club and international football for a considerable time and I take exception to the remarks made. I have the utmost regard for the Republic of Ireland medical team, who are as good as any in Europe. James played in our home game against Georgia and came through with no ill-effects. Accordingly, he started against Moldova.

"Naturally he tired and was substituted, but not through injury."

Koeman is no stranger to acrimony with his fellow managers. He has not hidden his disdain for Goodison predecessor Roberto Martinez since taking over in the summer, and he has struggled to curb his criticism of that regime. He has also had a long-running feud with Louis van Gaal. O'Neill had his moments with opposing managers at his clubs, but usually during games. There is no history between the pair, and this spat, which has quickly descended into hatred, is almost unique within Irish management.

Jack Charlton set the parameters of control very early in his regime. Club managers back then left the relationship with their players, even if they occasionally put pressure on their charges to withdraw from friendlies.

Charlton deliberately created an environment like a club to make the Irish experience more enticing for the players. And it worked. The difficulty for club managers was the uncertainty surrounding players' physical states on their return from Dublin.

He had an uneasy truce with Liverpool, and their manager Kenny Dalglish, particularly over their key players' participation in friendlies, but Liverpool were chasing titles back then.

In fact, when three Liverpool players pulled out of the infamous Iceland tournament, he turned to David O'Leary, only for the Arsenal defender to refuse Charlton's tardy invitation. He would not play for Ireland for nearly three years as a result.

Paul McGrath's club managers took the view that Charlton bent over backwards to look after one of Ireland's most gifted players and he was better off being looked after with the Ireland team, rather than left to his own devices.

The player-to-manager relationship did not change a great deal under Charlton's successor Mick McCarthy. His greatest challenge was persuading Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson to make the captain available for friendlies. In another life, Roy didn't do friendlies. It is a stance which is certain to have changed as O'Neill's assistant

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