Friday 30 September 2016

Roy Curtis: It's unfair that Martin O'Neill and his team are yet again a sub plot

Published 05/06/2015 | 21:34

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane
Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane

AS zero hour approaches and yet one more perplexing controversy erupts like a chaotically calibrated time-bomb about his person, it is easy to imagine Martin O’Neill’s will as a fraying wire, his conviction melting to cruddy slush.

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Here, at the defining milepost of his Irish journey, O’Neill and his team once more find themselves as little more than a subplot, an invisible afterthought.

That Ireland welcome England to Dublin for the first time in 20 years, that a towering, watershed date with Scotland looms, these good news stories have been reduced to roadkill beneath the latest Panzer tank tracks of extraordinary front page headlines.

Thierry Henry’s handball, having already shunted the 2010 World Cup campaign into the sidings, now threatens to derail Ireland’s already spluttering Euro 2016 streetcar named desire. 

Va Va Voom, indeed.

At the very least the latest fallout from that infamous night in Saint Denis – one that thrusts the FAI into the heart of Fifa’s soap opera - will trail O’Neill like an unwanted stalker across the most far-reaching week of his international management career.

The Derryman can but look on with an air of bewilderment as the baton of chaotic distraction is passed from Roy Keane to his old nemesis John Delaney.

A penny – or even five million of them - for your thoughts Martin?

As a one time student of law at Queens University, he would surely recognise the utter absurdity of any contention that Ireland were in possession of some uranium-enriched legal argument that would have atomised the 2009 play-off result in Paris.

The FAI would have been laughed out of court.

As the owner of a lively, quirky sense of humour, he might well wonder if the gods, intent on employing Scotland to destroy him, have first chosen to make him mad.

Whatever occurred between Sepp Blatter and John Delaney all those years ago, why or how €5m of Fifa’s money ended up surreptitiously landing in FAI coffers and however disturbing the five-year absence of transparency, it has nothing to do with O’Neill.

Yet it will be the smoking grenade he encounters at every press briefing, a maddening diversion just when he most craves a tailwind of positive energy.  

The story of the off the field turbulence – none of it of his own doing – that has buffeted O’Neill could only be written in the calligraphy of farce.

Each game, it seems, brings a fresh outbreak of preposterous slapstick.

Frequently – sometimes unwittingly – Keane has found himself cast as the central player in this theatre of the absurd.

Within months of his appointment, a necklace of controversies had wrapped themselves tightly around the Corkman’s throat.

From his book launch, to a bizarre team hotel altercation with a fan (O’Neill, like a US President delivering a stern-faced wartime address to the nation, compelled to issue an excruciating fireside-armchair homily about this vital affair of state), to Roberto Martinez and Jack Grealish flashpoints, Keane has been a rolling news story.

The avalanche of commotion has meant that for fixtures against Germany, Scotland, Poland, O’Neill has had to tiptoe carefully around a landscape strewn with boulders and laced with crevices.

Though he has been a soul of diplomacy, always remained adamant that the affairs of Planet Roy have never been an agitation, O’Neill must have prayed that the last distractions had been safely interred in some crypt of the ludicrous.

For this week O’Neill is walking a tightrope below which there is no safety net; if he falls against Scotland, he falls hard and hits concrete.

The very last thing he needed this week was to once more find himself under friendly fire.

But the drone of incoming missiles remains the soundtrack against which Ireland’s campaign unspools.

Delaney’s extraordinary interview with Ray D’Arcy even managed to divert attention momentarily from Blatter just as the Swiss, through his abdication from Fifa’s throne, had been reduced to an animal gnawing off a limb to escape a trap.

Was the €5m a loan, a pay-off to avoid court proceedings, a gift?

If Delaney – and he himself insists this is the case – was told he had a solid legal argument and yet still chose to take the money rather than go to court in pursuit of a World Cup slot, then he is open to accusations of betraying the team and its fans. 

If, as Eamon Dunphy suggests, he was chancing his arm and had somehow landed the winning Lotto jackpot, then why not break such a feel-good achievement to the world?

Even if his argument about a confidentiality clause is legitimate, it hurts Delaney that news of a secret deal breaks in the very week he attacked Blatter’s lack of transparency.

It is manifestly unfair that O’Neill, in these days that will define his relationship with Irish football, will likely be the figure most frequently interrogated on this sediment of the past.

The manager has long since circled this week in his diary.

With so many of his players tumbling from Premier League penthouse into championship abyss, O’Neill already had a social worker’s brief.

That my colleague, Daniel McDonnell, listed Shay Given – a player who started only three league games – as enjoying the ninth best season of any of Ireland’s Premier League contingent, illustrates the scale of what lies ahead for the manager.

Irish football, we learn, is five million richer today, yet a Liveline poll – where 59% said accepting the payment was wrong – hints that we feel a bankruptcy of spirit.

In time the highly irregular E5m payment may prove to be no more than a drumlin of controversy next to the Himalayan scandals rising above Fifa.

But as it obscures O’Neill’s view of the road ahead, it must feel to the manager like the tallest mountain on earth has been plonked on the road to France 2016.

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