Friday 23 March 2018

John Giles: Martin O'Neill's biggest issue is that his bond with the fans has been badly damaged, if not broken

Read John Giles every week in The Herald

John Giles

John Giles

IT is astonishing to me that the biggest issue which has arisen around Martin O’Neill is his relationship with RTE man Tony O’Donoghue. There are more important problems for the Ireland manager to be dealing with.

There were so many things wrong with that interview in Lausanne that I don’t know where to start. It was petty, pointless and focused on all the wrong things.

The single most significant difficulty O’Neill is facing as he begins his contract extension is the fact that the bond between himself and many Ireland fans has been badly damaged, if not broken.

Surely, the top priority for O’Neill right now is to send a message to supporters of his team that he is 100% committed to Ireland. Instead, he had a fight with a journalist who has only ever tried to his job.

Surely, the smart thing to do was to speak positively about the future and encouraging stories developing around several young Irish players in England and in doing so, offer fans who doubt his commitment something solid to assuage their fears.

O’Neill set the agenda for the interview and decided, instead, to double down on his post-Denmark clash with O’Donoghue and escalate the row by claiming that he has been wronged and that people “elsewhere” have a different view of his work with Ireland.

I really don’t care what other people “elsewhere” think. They are not relevant to this. His relationship with the fans, his employers and Ireland’s senior players are the only important things here.

The opinions of others only became relevant because he spoke with at least one Premier League club. He had a verbal agreement with the FAI and he spoke to Stoke about a management vacancy at the club. That’s it in black and white.

I am amazed that O’Neill has chosen this path.

All it has done is raised more questions about him among fans who I believe were already indifferent and not altogether unhappy with him being linked first with Everton and then Stoke.

And if there is anyone out there who doesn’t think that this is hugely significant, try reversing the details of the Stoke story and imagine for a moment that O’Neill was the manager at the Bet365 Stadium and the FAI came in with a big offer for him to jump.

How would Stoke fans respond if he sat down with the FAI for talks, the negotiations didn’t work out and he decided to stay on? Would they be happy? No chance.

It’s one thing looking over the fence at a more tempting offer. It’s another thing altogether when you have one leg over it.

I think it is very relevant to mention Michael O’Neill here and the fact that he was courted intensely by the Scottish FA for the last few months.

I can guarantee you that football fans north of the Border are grinning from ear-to-ear today as they digest the good news that their man is staying and that there will be no bad feeling towards him for talking to the SFA.

For a start, he had no verbal agreement to stay as Northern Ireland boss for the long haul when he opened talks about the Scotland job so the IFA and the fans, had no hold on him.

He was also on a much smaller salary package than Martin O’Neill and by hook or by crook, has ended up with a better deal. If he used the SFA as a lever to achieve that, fans will have no problem with that.

He will be welcomed back to his job with open arms by everyone involved in the Northern Ireland team but I’m not so sure the same can be said of Martin O’Neill.

Reading though his comments in newspapers over the last 24 hours, I couldn’t help but notice the provisional ball he put in place at the end of it all.

“Listen, obviously, there are lots of things that could happen. I couldn’t foresee Friday morning, never mind anything else,” he said when asked about his long-term plans.

That’s not the kind of talk fans want to hear. It’s not the kind of talk I would expect from a manager fully-committed to his task.

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