Monday 10 December 2018

Five questions the FAI need to answer after Martin O'Neill farce

Stoke developments leave the association in difficult position regarding boss' future

Martin O’Neill could be getting ready for a departure from the Ireland job even if Stoke City don’t offer him the reins. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill could be getting ready for a departure from the Ireland job even if Stoke City don’t offer him the reins. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

Talking point: Daniel McDonnell

As the waiting game over Martin O'Neill's future dragged along yesterday, it must have dawned on the FAI's decision-makers that they are going to face questions regardless of how the Stoke situation pans out.

John Delaney was in Abbotstown, meeting a sponsor for a publicity photo-shoot, while developments affecting the future of their senior manager were playing themselves out in England and beyond.

There is little that the FAI could do at that point. The problem for them is that O'Neill was able to talk to Stoke in the first place without any real fear about the consequences or the prospect of compensation becoming a stumbling block.

He has not signed a contract to secure his long-term future and is perfectly entitled to assess his options while that remains the case.

The fact that he was willing to sit down and meet officials from Stoke should really set alarm bells ringing.

And if Stoke do eventually end up appointing Quique Sanchez Flores rather than O'Neill, the same problem lingers for the FAI board; it has exposed the flaws in their working relationship with their most important employee.

Where does this leave the FAI?

This leaves the FAI board looking weak. They were keen to get O'Neill to stay on in October, and released news of an agreement without a contract being signed or terms agreed.

It is perhaps understandable that they didn't force things immediately in the aftermath of the grim Denmark defeat a month later. But two months have passed since then without progressing past a verbal agreement and that has left O'Neill free to talk with a prospective employer.

Even if Stoke go with Sanchez Flores, and the 65-year-old duly puts pen to paper with the FAI, it will be hard for the respective parties to put a positive spin on the state of play.

O'Neill has demonstrated that he is willing to look elsewhere. The FAI have demonstrated they were ultimately powerless to prevent it.

Is this an unprecedented situation?

It's quite unusual, without being a complete one-off. The balance of power in a manager-employer relationship can change quite quickly. Giovanni Trapattoni always liked to put it out there that he had alternative options and the FAI moved swiftly enough to offer the Italian two new contracts during his tenure.

His starting salary was gradually eroded due to budget cuts so he didn't exactly have them over the barrel either. In the end, they were too hasty in offering a contract extension before the Euros in Poland - a similar mistake was made with Mick McCarthy in 2002. By contrast, Brian Kerr was left hanging as his contract ran down.

Despite suffering a bruising defeat to Denmark, the ball is in O'Neill's court. He may not have received the initial offer he wanted from Stoke as they survey their options but, in an Irish context, he holds the aces. What is bizarre is the rolling arrangement that exists whereby he continues to work without having penned a new contract.

He was in charge for the World Cup opener in Serbia before signing a contract extension - the FAI refused to disclose how that functioned in terms of payment but it's believed that a rolling arrangement was in place.

In other words, he is still being paid during the impasse.

Could he leave even if Stoke overlook him?

The other side of the equation here is that O'Neill's position is damaged in the eyes of the public and possibly even people within the FAI who felt they had a deal.

It also emerged in the aftermath of the Danish game that the manager might be reconsidering his position because of the ferocious response.

What it does do is leave O'Neill open to the accusation that he views the Ireland job as his own fall-back option and if his team fail to regain momentum after the Denmark disappointment, that becomes a problem.

It's a leap to say his position is untenable; managers assess their options all the time.

But in the circumstances, it is not exactly a stable footing to kick off a year that is supposed to be about rebuilding.

Will the FAI be considering other options?

They wouldn't be doing their job if the answer is no. One would like to think that the authorities already have an idea of a possible field for further down the line even if O'Neill was staying on for the campaign.

If Roy Keane is in partnership with O'Neill as opposed to eyeing the Irish job himself, then it is imperative they have other options in mind - be it for now or further down the line. They wouldn't have to formally sound anybody out. It would be delusional to think that every discussion that takes place in football goes through proper channels.

The FAI should have the means to find out what McCarthy's view would be if the job was available - the Ipswich boss is out of contract this summer. But with no game until March, they do have a small bit of time to mull over their options in the event that O'Neill departs.

What will the players make of this?

The bulk of the squad won't lose too much sleep in the coming week. Players rarely do. But Richard Dunne did point out last night that, down the line, it might stick in the back of their mind that the manager was open to leaving. "As a player you might think if we lose a couple he might leave," he said. "Players want a manager they trust will be there for the long term."

Another concern would be related to young players such as Declan Rice who technically have the option of switching back to England, although it seems unfair to keep floating the possibility when his commitment has been strong to this point.

The creation of a vacuum might give the English FA encouragement that now might be a good time to strike. But this is a management matter; the interaction between O'Neill and his employers has become the pressing issue.

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