Wednesday 19 September 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Don't rule Roy Keane out as a contender to replace Martin O'Neill

If O'Neill calls a succession race, don't rule out Roy as a contender

Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill have been linked with a move to the Premier League
Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill have been linked with a move to the Premier League
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Picture the scene. It's a sunny afternoon in Dublin for the first major tournament game staged on Irish soil and the hosts are represented, having qualified for Euro 2020 through the usual method of a play-off.

Ballsbridge is heaving, with the UEFA branded 'Dublin Stadium' sold out for a momentous occasion.

For the team, it is a proud day. And, for the manager, Roy Keane, it is the culmination of a remarkable journey.

After three decades during which he has always been Irish football's biggest story, he is front and centre for the most significant national team game that has ever taken place in his homeland.

Could real life actually deliver a script like this?

What was once unthinkable is now arguably the natural progression with Martin O'Neill hinting at various stages that he could envisage a scenario where his assistant eventually takes charge.

It was raised last Thursday at the launch of Dublin's logo for the tournament and, unsurprisingly enough, the manager fobbed away the question. We know by now that he will take time over any such call.

O'Neill joked that his age prevented him from looking that far ahead - yet he conceded that sticking around to have a crack at taking part would be attractive.

The pan-European staging of the tournament across 13 countries was sold as a celebration of UEFA's 60th anniversary but it always smacked of a cynical Michel Platini political project to keep his parishioners - the voters - happy.

His departure came too late to divert UEFA from an initiative which will fill the pockets of airlines and greedy hoteliers. It's a horrible idea really.

As Ireland fans will remember from last summer, the permutations set out by a 24 team tournament can throw up a variety of scenarios for the knockout stages that can change at extremely short notice.

Booking last minute trains within a jurisdiction is one thing. As Euro 2020 develops past the regionalised first round, the paying punters will have to get themselves to another country.

For the committed follower that wants to see every one of his team's games, it will drain the finances.

And, unlike France, there will be no hub which allows fans of from a range of competing countries to mingle and enjoy a celebration of football.

The only redeeming characteristic of the idea is at the group stages, where the general public in smaller countries such as Ireland will get what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity - the chance to watch a major championship game on their doorstep. Older fans, in particular, will appreciate the significance.

Of course, the massive asterisk here is that the selling point completely hinges on Ireland making it. Much as 'the Irish' love to throw a party, the caveat is that it's much more enjoyable for the locals when they can get stuck into it. That's why guaranteed involvement in the 2023 Rugby World Cup makes it an easier sell.

Football brings a different pressure and there were references to it at last week's soiree although Taoiseach Enda Kenny did give a speech which appeared to presume that Ireland would feature.

He also took for granted that the same gaffer would be in place too by quipping that when it came to results, he would 'leave it to O'Neill', perhaps unaware that in football management, at least, leadership changes can be frequent.

O'Neill is delivering results, though, and every club weekend continues to remind us of that fact. There were just six Irish Premier League starters across Saturday and Sunday and two of those, John O'Shea and Jon Walters, are firmly in veteran status.

The draw might have been kind but the reality is that if Ireland book a ticket to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it will be up there with any of our previous qualifications in terms of achievement. It would be hard to match that, especially given the age profile of his squad.

Ireland's fine start has built expectations and if 2017 turns out to be a disappointment, then it might well be difficult for the Derryman to muster up the enthusiasm for another campaign, especially as it will be preceded by the new UEFA Nations League that is set to replace friendly matches in the calendar.

The final play-offs for the 2020 tournament will not actually take place until March, just three months before the action begins, so it promises to be a marathon commitment and the 64-year-old continues to give the impression that he retains ambitions in the club sphere.

So too does Keane, but the suspicion still lingers that the international game suits him as it allows him to work with committed players without having to deal with agents and the hangers on that populate the club scene.

When he arrived with O'Neill, his fate was tied in with the success or otherwise of the regime. If the road to France had ended in failure, then he would have suffered too. And, as assistant, he has always said that he will go when the manager does.

But that type of language tends to be associated with a scenario when the boss is ushered towards the door. Whatever happens now, it seems unlikely that O'Neill will leave under a cloud.

He has built up the credit to decide when the succession race starts. It will be a short one if the FAI are seduced by the box office storyline. Do not rule it out.

Irish Independent

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