Friday 24 November 2017

Patient courtship key to relationship starting on right foot

Garry Doyle

Where do you begin with the FAI's courtship of Martin O'Neill?

Is it on Friday, September 6 – the night Ireland played Sweden at the Aviva Stadium when O'Neill met an old football friend for dinner in Shanahan's restaurant on St Stephen's Green?

Is this the starting point, that evening when Robbie Keane's early goal provided an injection of hope into Giovanni Trapattoni's regime before Sweden and Anders Svensson extinguished it by close of play, leaving John Delaney to drive over to the team hotel in Portmarnock and sit down with Trapattoni for an hour-long meeting which effectively told the Italian his days were numbered?

Or perhaps we should go back further – to another decade and another succession race, one that Steve Staunton ultimately won, but only after O'Neill and Delaney spoke seriously about becoming an item for the first time.

Then, O'Neill was on a sabbatical from football to spend time with his wife, Geraldine, who was recovering from cancer. The right job was being offered at the wrong time.

Yet there was one point Delaney regularly makes when he is driving home the hard-sell. "We give our managers time," he tells prospective employees.

Brian Kerr and Staunton would passionately disagree with Delaney's claim but from O'Neill's perspective the harsher world of Premier League football has taught him to think carefully before he jumps into bed with any club.

At Sunderland, he was ditched after just over a year in the job. Staunton, remember, was kept on for 12 months after losing 5-2 in Cyprus and nine months after the 2-1 near disaster in San Marino.

Here, O'Neill knows there is a firm chance he will see out his contract, and for a 61-year-old scarred by Ellis Short's jumpy behaviour at Sunderland, this is a bigger deal than many believe.

Yet it wasn't the only persuasive factor. The financial package – worth €1.2m a year – is generous even by Premier League standards. Left with this offer, and no other, O'Neill knew he had to give it plenty of thought.

They met, unofficially and via an intermediary, two weeks after Trapattoni was sacked. O'Neill, cautious when it comes to accepting job offers, asked for time, something the FAI – world experts in the procrastination business – were prepared to offer.

It wasn't the only offer they had on the table. With enough money to finance a decent back-room team, the path was cleared for O'Neill to bring Roy Keane in as his No 2. So for five weeks, the FAI sat and waited, deliberately avoiding any contact.

Their final meeting – last Wednesday in London – closed the deal.

All the while as they waited on O'Neill to answer, Delaney cut a relaxed figure, partially because of his experience from previous appointment campaigns but also because O'Neill had suggested strongly in their initial meeting that he was keen.

As well as this, Delaney figured Mick McCarthy would jump at the chance if O'Neill turned it down.

But Plan A was O'Neill. And even as Ruud Dokter and Ray Houghton went through the process of meeting other prospective candidates, they were never going to willingly divert from this course.

Additionally, they had learned from the mistake they made in 2005, when they failed to set him a defined deadline. On this occasion, November 1 was written in stone. "Tell us yes or no by then," they said.

Last Wednesday he said yes and also something else – that Keane would be coming with him.

Irish Independent

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