Tuesday 25 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Hard to see how O’Neill can be kept on after this fiasco

Talking Point

Martin O’Neill could face a tough task to get the best out of his players after the Stoke City links. Photo: Getty Images
Martin O’Neill could face a tough task to get the best out of his players after the Stoke City links. Photo: Getty Images
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Martin O'Neill's time with Ireland is up. Should he continue, he'll just be a dead manager walking, a zombie boss to whom players and supporters are bound to by brute necessity rather than affection or respect. I've been an O'Neill supporter, I think he's often been unfairly criticised at times and I didn't join the calls for his head after the Denmark game. But now it's time for him to go.

Even his most fervent supporters knew that the aesthetic criticisms of his approach were well-founded. But we thought they were compensated for by the results O'Neill achieved and by his passion for the job.

The pragmatic defence of O'Neill has looked a little wobbly since Ireland failed to qualify for the World Cup finals. And now it seems the idea that O'Neill was uniquely committed to the job as national team manager was just a load of nonsense.

His manoeuvring for the Stoke City position seems to show that for O'Neill Ireland was not personal, it was just business. I'd have expected better but what can you do? People disappoint you sometimes.

The FAI's way of doing business often seems to be predicated on the belief that the Irish football public will put up with anything. So it's quite possible they believe the extraordinary events of the last week change nothing.

They may think that when the furore over O'Neill's attempted defection has died down they'll be able to announce he has agreed to continue as manager with John Delaney telling us how pleased he is to be working with Martin and Roy and what a good thing this is for the team. But this would in fact be a kind of last straw.

If there was any consolation to be taken from the defeat by Denmark in Dublin, it was that things couldn't get any more humiliating than this. Well, the past few days have come pretty close as we watched control of the biggest job in Irish football apparently pass out of the control of the FAI and into the hands of a couple of men who'd have been very surprised to hear that they'd suddenly become the most important men in Irish football.

First the mantle fell on Quique Sanchez Flores whose decision to stay as Espanyol boss made O'Neill odds on favourite to assume the helm at Stoke.

Then the Irish team's destiny passed into the hands of Peter Coates before the Stoke City chairman's inability to agree terms with O'Neill meant the deal fell through. I've nothing against Flores or Coates but I don't think anyone in this neck of the woods fancied outsourcing the fate of our national team to them.

Perhaps the FAI will try and persuade us that O'Neill's decision to stay resulted from some kind of behind-the-scenes intervention by Delaney. But this would be stretching credulity to the maximum. It seems pretty clear that if Stoke City could have come up with the goods, not just O'Neill but Roy Keane too would have thrown over Ireland for a team lying third from bottom of the Premier League. That's not good enough.

How can Martin O'Neill go back and get the best out of players who know he tried to ditch them and is only there because his escape attempt failed at the last minute?

And how can Ireland supporters, their morale already battered by the Denmark debacle, get fully behind a side managed by a man they know would rather be somewhere else?

For one thing they'd be wondering when O'Neill would make his next attempt to return to the Premier League. The jobs at Southampton and Watford will probably be available soon.

Perhaps O'Neill might even fancy a crack at one of the bigger Championship teams, a Sheffield Wednesday or Norwich City. Wouldn't it be kinder to free him to pursue these types of opportunities? He could really test the demand for his services without the situation being distorted by his possessing the Irish job as a safety net.

Irish fans are always told to be realistic about our status in the world game and not to expect too much. But I think they're entitled to expect that the incumbent national manager thinks the job is more important than managing Stoke City.

O'Neill has sometimes given the impression he was doing everyone a favour by managing Ireland, his behaviour over the last week is the concrete expression of this attitude.

If the FAI are in any doubt about what they should do next, they should perhaps call to mind the most famous words of Ciarán Fitzgerald.

Because if they simply let O'Neill continue in a job he clearly regards as beneath his dignity, they have no f**king pride in the national team. And if the body in charge of Irish football doesn't, how can they expect anyone else to have any?


They have contributed hugely to an awful week for Irish football because O'Neill wouldn't be able to treat the job with such cavalier abandon if the contract he reportedly agreed to back in October had actually been signed.

To say that it's easy to make this criticism in hindsight is to get things backwards.

The lack of urgency by the FAI in securing O'Neill's services is the kind of thing that only looks good in hindsight. In the past they got away with it, this time they didn't.

The 'sure don't worry about it, I'll see you right' attitude may have its uses in the employment of casual building labour but it's a pretty terrible way to do business in football. As negotiators, the FAI ended up with the worst of both worlds. They appeared to have bound themselves to O'Neill yet O'Neill, having signed nothing, behaved if he wasn't bound to them at all.

Being proved right has always been something of a fetish with the FAI and this means O'Neill's chances of survival are probably better now than they should be. Reappointing the manager would enable them to pretend that last week's fiasco wasn't really that big of a deal.

That won't do. Irish football is demoralised and uncertain at the moment. It is at a crossroads and it needs a better driver than someone who can't keep his eyes on the road because he envies the other cars.

Irish Independent

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