Thursday 13 December 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Job share for Martin O'Neill would make no sense for Ireland

Derryman is on Stoke radar but combining roles would undermine Irish road ahead

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has been linked to a return to club
management with Stoke City. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has been linked to a return to club management with Stoke City. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

If Stoke are unsuccessful in their pursuit of Gary Rowett, then Martin O'Neill could face a decision on his future.

And it should be straightforward in the context of his job as manager of Ireland - stay or go.

The prospect of O'Neill double jobbing until the summer has been floated as a possibility in the ruminations over the departure of Mark Hughes from his post as Stoke boss.

There is a logic to it, of course. Ireland's next competitive game is the start of the UEFA Nations League in September and Stoke need a safe pair of hands to steer them clear of relegation trouble by May.

Rowett appears to be the preferred option, but O'Neill is an attractive back-up, especially as he has not even signed his FAI deal and would therefore be free to step into the post - if he so desired - without compensation concerns.

Sam Allardyce seems to be warming the seat at Everton until the summer and the Derryman could do the same thing for Stoke, especially as he is on good terms with chairman Peter Coates.

From an Irish perspective, the argument in favour would be O'Neill getting back in the day-to-day groove and testing himself against elite opposition with a view to somehow coming out on the other side with a fresh approach to bring into the autumn.

The spin would be that he could keep an eye on Irish interests while doing so, although a gig in the Championship would sadly bring him into contact with more options.

But the whole concept is in danger of underestimating the demanding and draining nature of a battle with relegation. And, crucially, it would also demean the importance of his forthcoming work with Ireland amid the Danish wreckage.

Difference

There is a difference between pointing out the emptiness of the Irish schedule for 2018 and reaching the conclusion that there is little for the manager to do.

In fact, this could turn out to be a valuable window for housekeeping.

It's clear that this regime has reached a crossroads, and O'Neill has acknowledged that a period of transition is around the corner.

Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan and John O'Shea are not expected to play for Ireland again and the intentions of Jonathan Walters and Daryl Murphy are unclear. That would be a big turnover within a relatively settled group.

The problem with transition in the FAI's top job is that they can't necessarily afford to write off a campaign to facilitate it, especially with part of Euro 2020 coming to Dublin.

That spectacle would completely lose its significance without an Irish presence in the competition.

No matter how much the respective parties try to play it down, this is the most important qualification campaign of them all.

The nuances of the UEFA Nations League are a complicated business, but they do function as competitive games that will impact Ireland's 2020 prospects so there will be no real scope for experimentation come the autumn.

Therefore, the time for assessing the depth of options is in the next six months. In scheduling a training camp in Turkey before the March friendly in Antalya, there is a seeming acknowledgement that fresh faces need integration.

At this stage, the summer plans are unclear beyond an away date in France on May 29. At least one more task will be added to the diary to facilitate a lengthy get-together.

Granted, after four years, we have learned it would be unwise to expect a radical change of philosophy.

There have been sporadic discussions about switching to three at the back and looking at alternative systems but Ireland ultimately reverted to type when it really mattered.

And, in terms of the style of play, that may always be so with results all that matter. But changes in personnel have been forced on management; decisions which cannot be delayed.

Declan Rice's role in the set-up needs to be clarified this side of the summer. There's a certain Jack Grealish-driven paranoia that kicks in when an Irish-declared player starts to perform at a level which would pique England's curiosity.

Rice has given the FAI no cause to doubt his commitment. The London lad was belting out the anthem ahead of U-21 matches in the tail end of last year. But there was a pragmatism in inviting him to train in Fota Island last May and the same logic should be used to bring him into the fold for Turkey. That's a project that is worth putting time into; eyes must be on the ball.

But there's other business to attend to as well. If management are playing the long game towards 2020 then there are players to scout beyond the obvious tried and tested.

Connor Ronan's loan switch from Wolves to Portsmouth is an interesting one for starters. Reading's Liam Kelly deserves further examination.

Then there are players on the fringes of squads that might be seeing action at U-23 level - and they can be monitored with a view to inviting them into training camps.

At Championship level, Alan Judge is back fit and ready to knock on the door again.

Matt Doherty and Greg Cunningham have played no part competitively under O'Neill but are very well regarded in the Championship.

If Sean Maguire overcomes his hamstring woe, that's another reason to visit Preston - Alan Browne and Daryl Horgan are developing too.

In other words, there is the basis for drawing up a sizeable to-do list.

There are precedents for job sharing. Guus Hidding relocated to Chelsea for three months in 2009 while in charge of Russia - one can only assume that Roman Abramovich helped to smooth things over.

His spell at Chelsea was quite successful, even though it overlapped with a competitive window for Russia.

They won those matches, but missed out on the next year's World Cup.

O'Neill's assistant Roy Keane also juggled his role with a spell working under Paul Lambert.

It's far more common for an assistant to split roles, but that wasn't exactly a resounding success either.

But the bottom line for the FAI is that if O'Neill is suitably intrigued by the Stoke opportunity, then maybe it's a sign that their partnership has run its course.

The Derryman was stung with the reaction to the Danish loss, yet the soundings were that he was prepared to move beyond that and get stuck into a rebuilding job.

A six-month Stoke sojourn to start it off would do little to steady shaky foundations.

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