Thursday 26 April 2018

It’s going to be hard to justify week of confusion

Irish boss could break silence this week with contract talks planned

Martin O’Neill had looked set to step away from his job as Ireland manager. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill had looked set to step away from his job as Ireland manager. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The one thing that can be said about the Martin O'Neill saga that has played itself out over the past week is that his silence on Friday night now makes sense.

If he had turned up at the football writers' dinner at the Conrad Hotel and stressed his commitment to Ireland before then holding further talks with Stoke the next day, his position would really be compromised.

It would have been difficult to draw a line under an episode that had still had a twist or two to come.

But he has explaining to do now, part of the process of getting an Irish public that seemed to be quite indifferent to the prospect of his departure back on side.

The very fact that he went to speak to Stoke in the first place doesn't exactly strengthen the argument that he was always going to honour the verbal agreement he made to the FAI in October.

And that is going to hang over the Derryman as he embarks on 2018, seemingly committed to seeing through a third campaign with Ireland. The rebuilding job is now multi-faceted.

The suspicion still lingers that if Stoke had offered him the type of contract they were prepared to dangle in front of Quique Sanchez Flores, then the FAI would be looking for a new manager this morning.

Questions

And that is one of the questions that O'Neill will have to answer as part of any attempt to save face.

There is a possibility that he will speak this week at a press event arranged to offer his take; the alternative would be to wait until next week's UEFA Nations League draw in Switzerland. The FAI are hopeful that his contract will be signed ahead of that trip.

It's the absence of that piece of paper which has asserted the control that he has over the association in their loose arrangement. His employers have come out of this affair looking weak - although they at least still have a manager. Stoke's hierarchy would score lower in the player ratings here.

But while it appears that O'Neill kept the FAI up to date with developments, the dynamic of that relationship has been exposed by his freedom. He ultimately had the power to go his own way.

The Abbotstown decision-makers now have to finalise the contract with a manager who has alienated a good portion of fans if social media polls are a reliable barometer of public opinion.

That's not really an ideal way to kick off a year that is not going to provide any contenders for Ireland's greatest sporting moments, a point that the FAI appear to have realised by arranging away friendlies for the first time since late 2013. There will be a game in the Aviva Stadium this side of the summer, and the mood around the ground will tell a story. As will the level of traffic.

If things are going badly on the pitch, the manager will hear about it and the Stoke angle will be a factor. A poor start to the UEFA Nations League in the autumn could really put management on a sticky wicket. And this was supposed to be a tedious but quite stress-free year. Not so now.

The point has been made that O'Neill's position is now untenable, yet there is no suggestion that the FAI see it this way.

They were on the other side of the verbal agreement, and going back on that would leave them open to quite a spectacular fallout. The only winners from that would be the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind as Roy Keane's next press appearance on their behalf could reasonably come with an admission fee. Hell hath no fury like a Keano scorned.

It will not come to that, but the FAI top brass will eventually have to take questions on their stance. They will stand by their man, and the Stoke decision does indicate that he is prepared to stick with them.

For all that O'Neill apparently fancies another crack at club management, he is clearly not desperate as otherwise he would have accepted a route back into the Premier League.

And that is worth bearing in mind the next time he is mentioned as a possible option for a brief in the Championship - it would appear the bar has been set for what it would take to make him pack the bags.

A lengthy contract from a Premier League side is the standard, and it's hard to see that offer coming. If he doesn't fancy a Sam Allardyce-style stopgap role, then Ireland is where his future is.

He is known to have been upset by the reaction that followed the Danish drubbing in November, and he will surely be conscious of how events in the past seven days have gone down.

The easiest way to sway minds is with good results, and the absence of meaningful games means that option is not available for the foreseeable future. It doesn't really lend itself to a convivial year.

So while there is a certain predictability about press men demanding that a manager speaks to the press - in the outside world nobody cares too much about such grievances - it is abundantly obvious that O'Neill has to break his silence in any attempt to move on.

After all, it's not about speaking to the media. It's about using them to communicate a message to the Irish public, many of whom are convinced that he is not fully on board for the long haul.

By all accounts, O'Neill sees it differently. He will have to draw on old skills to sell that version. His old team-mate and assistant John Robertson reflected on their journey in an interview in November.

"We worked for an insurance company before we took the Wycombe job and someone gave him a manager's role," said Robertson. "They didn't think he'd be a great salesman, but they obviously saw something in him."

He will need those old powers of persuasion to convince a nation that he remains their best option.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport