Sport Soccer

Monday 23 April 2018

David Kelly: FAI should recognise O'Neill isn't only option

No need for hasty appointment – especially of a manager whose record has been in decline

John Delaney and the FAI don't need to rush to replace Giovanni Trapattoni
John Delaney and the FAI don't need to rush to replace Giovanni Trapattoni
David Kelly

David Kelly

FAI CEO John Delaney is right about one thing. International football forms only 3pc of his job spec. Unfortunately for the embattled Waterford man, 97pc of Irish people are engrossed in that 3pc.

Few of that number care for the intractable problems of underage football or whether the new manager has any connection with the sport here.

Hence, the almost obscene haste to ensure that Martin O'Neill is ushered in by the FAI board.

Even last Friday week, loose FAI jaws were reportedly drooling O'Neill's name in hotel lobbies with hushed reverence as it became clear that Giovanni Trapattoni's days were numbered.

And so now we are being led to believe that O'Neill remains the only obvious option to manage Ireland.

It is a cheerleading campaign led by the most glamorous tutu-wearer of them all, Eamon Dunphy. A man, we should recall, who once suggested that Paul Jewell was the future.

To be fair, he is not alone. And he may not necessarily be wrong.

So many others have righteously trumpeted that "it is perfect timing" for O'Neill to link up with Ireland.

Few have bothered to analyse whether it is "perfect timing" for Ireland to link up with O'Neill.

Why should it be automatically assumed that O'Neill is the appropriate match for Ireland when Ireland may not necessarily be the appropriate match for him?

And is it not pertinent to ask: why the unseemly rush to appoint the only horse in a one-horse race?

The assumption that O'Neill is the "only man for the job" is a typically short-sighted approach from both the FAI and the majority of that 97pc of Irish people, for most of whom international football is a rude interruption to their lives.

Irish football owes it to itself to at least cast the net wider.

And, should O'Neill remain the only man for the job after a prudent probe of global talent, then he should be afforded the obligatory hats off and a hero's welcome.

But if the FAI are more concerned about a swift appointment so they can earn a few desperate quid when Ireland take on the oil refinery that is Kazakhstan next month, or because he is "well got", then that is not correct due process.

Martin O'Neill should not get the job simply because he is a next-door neighbour clutching a P45.

A name in the game

O'Neill's storied history in the game commands respect – and his evocation of the underdog spirit seems to suit Ireland's position in the international game.

At Wycombe and Leicester, he punched above his weight, delivering an unlikely League Cup triumph to the latter. Where are Leicester now? Precisely.

At Celtic, he truly broke the stranglehold of the cash-rich – now exposed as unlawfully so – Rangers on the Scottish game.

Having done that, he began the club's assault on Europe, paving the way for the exploits of Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon in the Champions League. In battling to the final minutes of a UEFA Cup final against Jose Mourinho's Porto, though, his achievements easily outweigh those of his successors on the European stage.

At Aston Villa, he established the club with three sixth-placed finishes in succession; now they are relegation candidates. Even his torrid spell at Sunderland may yet be defined by his apologists if the Paolo Di Canio continues his reign of (t)error.

At 61, O'Neill may be in the prime of his managerial life. Even better for the FAI, he is not under contract and can start immediately, boosting interest in the dead-rubber Dublin clash against Kazakhstan.

Mr Motivator

John O'Shea, when he spoke last season, hinted at the positive effect the Derry man could have, particularly amongst the rump who became disenchanted with Giovanni Trapattoni's last two years in charge.

"It's no coincidence he's mentioned with so many jobs, his name seems to pop up every time," said the former Manchester United defender.

"His track record shows he can improve teams and get the best out of teams, consistently. It's amazing.

"His motivational skills, psychologically... he's so clever in what he says at the right time to players, in team talks and around training sessions. It's the simplicity he brings – he doesn't complicate things, he keeps it simple and just gives confidence to players.

"He keeps things so simple, but believe me, when it comes to tactical situations, he doesn't come up short."

After a manager who dared not invest his players with any faith in their ability, O'Neill will maximise the talent at his disposal, and his use of attacking wingers could get the most out of Ireland's passing players.

Ultimately, he could make Ireland's players believe in themselves.

Not work-shy

When O'Neill first linked up with Sunderland, James McClean, an exciting young winger, had been languishing in the reserves under previous boss Steve Bruce.

At a fiendishly windy Eppleton Colliery Welfare football club in deepest County Durham, O'Neill pitched up to see Sunderland reserves thrashing Manchester United 6-3.

As he did so, the avid football watcher was also checking out Champions League football on his iPad. But he wasn't distracted enough to notice McClean's impact.

Four days later, O'Neill brought his fellow Derry man on from the bench to help turn a potential defeat against Blackburn into a victory.

There is no doubt that O'Neill will get his hands dirty.

He is voracious in his appetite for football, and neither weather nor distance will put him off seeing a game – unlike Trapattoni, who had to be cajoled from his luxurious home cinema in Milan to slum it at midlands Premier League grounds.

His character is impeccable, his intellect keen and his ability to communicate is obvious to all.

He understands this country's culture and his opinions of what it feels to be Northern Irish unveil a sense of someone who resists hypocritical parochial cant.

Unlike many in the game, he is a straight-talking man who won't play his public for fools.

A man out of time

O'Neill's great mentor at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, retired at just 58, when the game and the England manager's job had passed him by. At three years older, there is a nagging suspicion that the same fate may have afflicted O'Neill.

For many, his time at Sunderland was indicative of this, with his inability to inspire players and a tendency to linger with unsuccessful and unswerving tactics leading to his downfall.

Too often in latter years, he tried to shoehorn players into an immovable tactical framework, rather than alter his system to suit players.

Once a candidate for the England job – or twice, if we believe everything we are spun – and hailed as the heir apparent to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, that shining lustre has dimmed appreciably in recent years.

He was also linked with Spurs, Manchester City and Arsenal, yet the timing of great, late runs that marked his career as a player seems to have fizzled into nothing.

It is a decade since that famed European run with Celtic; since Aston Villa, he has been a managerial mediocrity.

For someone who was possessed of an aura – or bequeathed one by his media luvvies – O'Neill never quite reached the managerial heights that were supposedly his inevitable fate.

There is a reason Leeds opted for Brian McDermott and not O'Neill.

If he gets the Ireland gig, at least O'Neill wouldn't be spending FAI money on transfer targets.

Not that the FAI have much money anyway, itself a factor when – eventually – they are presented with O'Neill's financial assessment of his own worth.

But are Ireland really best matched with someone in decline?

E, Mr Motivator?

Most of O'Neill's advocates this week have placed great store upon the fact that his main strength is not really as a coach but as a "motivator and man-manager".

If being a coach is so unimportant, then the FAI should go the whole hog and merely appoint a sports psychologist as national team boss.

If the most important guidance required for Ireland's millionaire Premier League footballers, those at the zenith of Ireland's football pyramid, is merely motivation techniques, then there is much more wrong with the sport in this country than we already suspected.

Hugging players is a cliched anachronism; true, Ireland require spirit and passion but if that is not already hard-wired into its players, then nobody can fix that problem.

It is routinely reported that O'Neill favoured delegation on the training field in days of yore, detailing his assistant John Robertson to do the actual coaching to the players.

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of O'Neill's technical abilities; Robertson is recovering from a heart attack and has declared little interest in an immediate return to work.

The first time O'Neill had to work without Robertson, at Sunderland in a period eerily reminiscent of when Clough sundered his partnership with Peter Taylor all those years ago, the Irishman was rendered impotent.

Not the only option

Just because O'Neill is available, unemployed and a supposed crowd favourite is not sufficiently sturdy reasoning to immediately stop casting the net as wide as possible.

O'Neill is in an unexpected position of strength – he knows he is earmarked as the favourite candidate.

As well as delaying any meaningful discussions about the job, he knows the chips are stacked in his favour.

He knows the FAI are leaning towards a swift appointment, that half his salary will be picked up by a benefactor who once also poured his money into Celtic.

Instead, the FAI should not rush this very important appointment. If they are happy to employ an immediately available manager now, there will be a host of them equally available in a few months' time.

Also, there are obvious candidates already available now – including Roy Keane, Brian Kerr and Hector Cuper.

Ireland don't have a competitive game for a year, so there is no rush.

This appointment is about the long-term future of Irish football – not filling seats for a Kazakhstan bore-fest. A quick decision is not always the right one.

Ireland's supporters deserve a meaningful quest to unearth a composed and intelligent planning for the future of the game here – not a quick-fix.

Martin O'Neill may well emerge as the best candidate.

But history informs us that the initial favourite has never got the gig in the end.

Time should be an ally to the FAI, not an enemy.

Making the right decision for the good of Irish football is all that matters.

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