Tuesday 27 September 2016

Daniel McDonnell: Bizarre O'Neill contract delay a curious way to do business

Slow process invites speculation about manager's future intentions

Published 07/09/2016 | 02:30

Martin O’Neill and John Delaney at the FAI Media Awards in Clonmel in July. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill and John Delaney at the FAI Media Awards in Clonmel in July. Photo: Sportsfile

It was on the eve of Ireland's departure for France that the FAI were thrilled to announce they had certainty about the future of Martin O'Neill.

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"I am delighted we have agreed terms with Martin and his team of Roy Keane, Steve Guppy, Seamus McDonagh and Steve Walford," said John Delaney in a statement which seemed to confirm that the management team had finalised contract talks and would be staying on for the 2018 World Cup campaign.

After the open training session in Versailles that announced Ireland's arrival in France, O'Neill mentioned that he hadn't actually got around to signing the deal yet.

"John and I have shaken hands on an extension and that's fine with me," he said. "John wanted me to do it. He was looking for a bit of continuity like everything else. He's persuaded me to do it."

Questions were asked about the rationale for releasing a statement without a contract signed and sealed but they were shrugged off. O'Neill pointed out that he started the job without having put pen to paper - six to seven weeks passed before they got around to it.

It's a line that he has consistently made through the summer and up until this week, where we find ourselves in the bizarre position whereby the senior international manager is effectively operating off a rolling contract.

Considering that the Irish team is the main revenue driver for the FAI, and O'Neill is therefore their most important employee, it's a fairly odd state of affairs.

For the 64-year-old, the media queries about the reason for the delay are probably boring. There's a fair chance that some readers are fatigued by it too. But it has turned into a baffling saga which invites speculation.

In July, Delaney made it sound like the main reason for the delay was comparable with the unfortunate circumstances which prevent long lost school friends from struggling to catch up over Christmas.

"I spoke to Martin last week - I had to go to the Euros final and we'd have met Monday morning only for the fact that I was coming back when he was heading back to England," he said.

Matter

"The contracts are there to be signed and it's only a matter of myself and Martin meeting up to sign.

"I would expect that to be the next time I meet him, whether that is the back end of next week or it could be at the AGM (end of July in Tipperary) when he's going to be there for a couple of days."

O'Neill was in Tipperary along with Delaney, but the formalities were not completed. Three months have passed since the initial announcement. The FAI CEO has been in the news for other reasons over the past month - his to-do list was complicated by matters pertaining to the Brazilian police - but it doesn't explain the protracted process. Their sat navs have aligned.

Earlier this year, there were a few murmurs that the terms of the contract extension which had been offered to the Derryman were slightly different from his original two-year deal for the duration of the Euros campaign.

The issues were not understood to be related to his basic salary, but moreso to do with clauses and the other details.

At the same time, O'Neill indicated that he was willing to wait until affairs in France ended before confirming his position. That made sense, given that a disastrous summer might have left him on the ropes. He referenced Giovanni Trapattoni's struggles in Poland.

Therefore, the pre-tournament press statement came as a slight surprise; O'Neill's words indicated that the FAI were anxious to tick the box.

France went well, though, and inevitably this inexplicable delay has fuelled further club speculation. Hull City are changing ownership and O'Neill is known by a contact of the Chinese consortium which is taking over.

We have been here before. Throughout his short stay in Ireland, O'Neill's name has been linked with a variety of roles, and sometimes the stories have grown legs because of tiny bets and press releases from publicity-hungry bookmakers.

He did have an opportunity to assume control of Leicester last summer and turned it down because he wanted to honour his Irish agreement.

That tackled the belief that O'Neill would jump ship if a Premier League door opened. His assistant Roy Keane has also passed up chances to leave. The manager has stressed this week that he is committed to staying on for the road to Russia and there is absolutely no reason to doubt the sincerity of that statement.

He had reservations about committing to the international sphere initially, but he has warmed to the task. World Cup qualification is possible, despite the mixed reaction to Monday's evening's opening 2-2 draw in Belgrade.

In the aftermath, O'Neill was animated in his assertion that it was a good point even if the performance didn't quite hit the heights of France. "This is a new competition," he said. "This is qualification football.

"This was a big point and we have to go and try and make use of it now in the upcoming games. We're off the mark."

Contract chat was again dismissed as a minor concern. "There will be no hiccups," he said. "I should imagine we've got it sorted. In fact, we've shaken hands on a deal some time ago."

Last week, his number two Keane did state to Sunday papers that he had 'an idea' about the ins and outs that had slowed down talks, but said that nobody should be losing any sleep over it.

He rightly dismissed the notion that it would have any impact on the dressing room, quipping that the players were more likely to be interested in 'Peaky Blinders' - a TV show - than the state of play with their manager's terms of employment.

In a club environment, where an individual might be aligned with their boss, these matters can be unsettling. But it will be another month before the squad tune back in to Irish business.

The visit of Georgia and a trip to Moldova is the October double-header, a pair of matches where Ireland can realistically aim for six points.

O'Neill should have signed his contract by then. But if it was a straightforward situation, it would have been signed before Belgrade so any confident predictions should be accompanied by that asterisk.

Clearly, there is trust between the respective camps as other associations and managers would refuse to proceed without a rubber-stamped arrangement. Maybe a handshake is enough to suit all parties. But it's a curious way to do business.

Irish Independent

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