Comment: Many ‘ifs’ for FAI to deal with as Martin O’Neill enters Stoke talks with heir apparent Roy Keane set to follow him
The flight to Geneva, in the name of Martin O’Neill, is booked.
Now it looks like someone else will have to head up the FAI delegation to Switzerland for the draw for the UEFA Nations League in less than two weeks’ time.
The current Ireland manager has already cancelled one engagement in 2018. He had been planning to attend an event in Dublin tomorrow night, the annual awards night for the Soccer Writers Association of Ireland.
The FAI CEO John Delaney has not attended the event in almost a decade but the Republic of Ireland manager, in the form of Giovanni Trapattoni and then O’Neill, has not missed the gig in at least six years.
The FAI made it known that O’Neill would not now be attending, that call made even before it was known that Stoke were last night entering talks with the 65-year-old, and while spending the night as a guest of the Irish soccer media is not O’Neill’s favourite day of the year, his absence from the event is significant.
O’Neill has not said a word in public in the 57 days since Denmark dumped Ireland out of the World Cup. Attending that event in Dublin tomorrow would have put him in a position where he’d be expected to end his silence.
Turns out, those tetchy press conferences after the Danish loss could be his final interaction with the Irish soccer public.
Today, three questions are pressing. Will Martin O’Neill get the job as Stoke City manager? If so, would it be possible for him to carry on as Ireland boss as well? And if O’Neill does leave his Ireland role in the next week, what then for the FAI?
First off, Stoke are in the process of talking to O’Neill. Having gone that far, and already used up four days (valuable time) since Mark Hughes was put out of his misery, Stoke City FC cannot waste any more time. Relegation could cost Stoke £100m, and the plight of Sunderland at the bottom of the Championship right now shows that ‘bouncing back’ is only really relevant if you’re talking about Alan Partridge’s autobiography, it doesn’t mean an instant return to the Premier League.
So Stoke won’t skimp on the cost of hiring O’Neill, if he is indeed the man they want. O’Neill will also be able to pick his staff. If he wants Roy Keane with him, that will happen. It must be remembered that, while O’Neill and Keane are still on the FAI payroll, they are technically out of contract, so permission and compensation are not issues.
In terms of question two, one easy way to deal with his commitment to the FAI - and they showed real loyalty to O’Neill with that October contract offer - would be to double-job.
Apart from the March friendly in Turkey, there is nothing important in the FAI calendar for O’Neill between now and the end of the Premier League season. Even that Turkish game is in the middle of a two-week break for the international fixtures. Technically, Keane could stay at the helm of Ireland, while also working for Stoke. And when May comes, if it’s all gone badly at Stoke, he could revert to the FAI, though that situation is not ideal.
And for the FAI, what happens if he walks? If Roy Keane goes with him to Stoke, the heir apparent is also gone.
With months to go before the next competitive game, Ireland have time to find a new boss. Whether they have the stomach for a managerial hunt is another matter.
Is Mick McCarthy’s number still in the FAI rolodex?