Friday 23 August 2019

Hostile blame game may make O'Neill think twice

Ireland boss likely to get club offers but must let dust settle before plotting his next move

Martin O’Neill is shouldering the blame for Ireland’s play-off defeat. Photo: PA
Martin O’Neill is shouldering the blame for Ireland’s play-off defeat. Photo: PA

Luke Edwards

There is a question Martin O'Neill needs to ask himself, and it is not whether he should have stuck with his tried and tested defensive formula for Ireland's World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark. It is whether the time is right for him to leave.

At difficult moments like these, home is where the heart is; where his family surround him and O'Neill has lived in the UK for more than four decades. He will fly back to England today, bruised, battered and bitter. Annoyed with himself, to an extent, but mainly seething at the spiteful reaction to the defeat in Dublin and beyond.

He sensed it in the hostile tone of the post-match press conference in the Aviva Stadium, but the venom that has been spat at him since means it is now a distinct possibility that he will not continue as Ireland manager.

That will be of interest to several clubs in England, who may now look to test his loyalty to the FAI and the verbal agreement to extend his contract. O'Neill was last month offered a two-year extension before securing the win over Wales in Cardiff, that secured a play-off place. But the ink is not dry on it because he has not picked up a pen to sign.

For O'Neill, a handshake and a verbal agreement matter - he didn't sign his last extension until several months after it was agreed - but the defeat to Denmark, the nature of it and the type of criticism that followed, has altered his perception of the job, as well as perceptions of him.

The lack of perspective and context given to the heavy defeat to Denmark annoyed him, but also the lack of understanding - appreciation even - of the limitations he works under has been a constant source of friction.

He feels under-appreciated. Ireland have played 24 competitive games under O'Neill and lost four of them, yet there are those who feel he has under-performed. It could well be that he thinks, 'OK, fine, let someone else have a go.'

O'Neill needs to let the dust settle. He will go away on holiday and he will think about things. He always does. He will not rush this decision, one way or the other.

In his mind will be the fact Ireland qualified for the Euros, reached the knockout stage of that tournament for the first time and followed it up by finishing second in their World Cup group when fourth seeds.

Not bad, not amazing, but given the resources at his disposal, it is highly debatable anyone would have done better. He will wonder, has he taken the Ireland team as far as he can?


Yet, there is an inflated opinion of how good the Irish players are and a strange sense of entitlement when it comes to judging the fortunes of the national team. Ireland did well to get a play-off place, yet O'Neill is slaughtered for failing to win it.

He must ask himself, does he need that sort of criticism or should he return to club football in England with his assistant Roy Keane?

There has been - and would be - plenty of interest in employing them. There are better-paid jobs waiting for the pair if they want one of them.

At the age of 65, O'Neill has a decision to make and the fascinating thing is that, rather the replace him if O'Neill departs the Ireland job, Keane is far more likely to follow him.

Ireland are, on paper, a team that would struggle to stay in the Premier League. If you were being cruel, you might suggest they are one that would struggle to get out of the Championship given that only five of the starting line-up - Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Stephen Ward at Burnley, Shane Duffy at Brighton and Harry Arter at Bournemouth - started for their Premier League clubs the weekend before the international break.

Emotions always run high in the wake of a devastating defeat, but there has been an undercurrent of animosity towards O'Neill swimming just below the surface throughout his four-year reign.

His demeanour, his prickliness and, at times his personality, have helped provoke that, but those who dislike him must ask who would they prefer in his place and who could have done more?

It is the nature of the beast. Success or failure in international football sends a shudder through the national consciousness that cannot be matched by other sports. Just ask the Italians and the Dutch, who will also not be going to Russia next year.

Ireland thought this was the moment the national team would return to the World Cup stage after a 16-year absence and they failed. The dream died and someone has to be blamed.

At the moment, the blame is heaped upon O'Neill. That's management, and he has to take it, but could put him off returning in the spring.

Scotland are looking for a new manager, so might Northern Ireland soon. More pertinently, O'Neill has a CV that would put him the frame for countless vacancies at club level in the future. After four years with Ireland, he may simply have had enough.

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