Sunday 18 November 2018

O'Neill has work to do to move past uncertain week

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Business as usual?

It will be hard for Martin O'Neill and the FAI to sell that catchphrase as they move beyond a week that succeeded in giving high-profile exposure to their dysfunctional way of managing contract relations.

And his refusal to speak at an event organised by football writers has only succeeded in adding another layer to the circus. The opportunity to try and restore some calm was passed over.

This will go down as a week which showed he is capable of having his head turned by faraway fields that might actually be greener than leading Ireland.

It's difficult to condemn O'Neill for being curious. A job on a bigger stage that would likely offer a pay rise tends to interest individuals in all walks of life.

Emotive references to loyalty get applied to football, a business that can be as ruthless as any other.

Chris Coleman: From Wales to Sunderland. Photo: PA
Chris Coleman: From Wales to Sunderland. Photo: PA

The damage here is related to the very specific brief that the Irish manager now faces.

The Denmark blow was devastating, for it left 2018 looking very bare indeed.

Ireland's squad has an age profile which means that a period of transition is not a choice - it's a necessity.

Therefore, the message that needs to be projected from the top is that the FAI have a manager who is ready to see that process through all the way to 2020, the year where the European Championships come to Dublin and Ireland simply have to be there or else securing partial co-hosting will turn out to be the greatest anti-climax of all time.

International football can drag.

With no opportunity to get back on the horse and erase the memory of the Danish night, this must be a tough window in the calendar for O'Neill.

National team bosses can get itchy feet over the Christmas period, especially if they feel they might have unfinished business in the club sphere.

Faced with a long wait for a meaningful game with Wales, Chris Coleman decided to leap into the fire at Sunderland.

There is no treachery in O'Neill thinking about doing similar. But he now needs to convince a sceptical public that he has the energy to throw himself into the challenge ahead. How can he achieve that?

Sign the contract

It's simple, really. If a contract was signed, then last week's fuss could have been avoided. If O'Neill was only a fall-back option for Stoke rather than the candidate they were desperate to secure, then the prospect of paying compensation might have persuaded them to look elsewhere.

Murmurs that they were only prepared to offer a short-term deal to the end of the season could be construed as a direct consequence of his loose contractual position - there was going to be no hassle involved in that pursuit.

With a contract on paper, the dynamics are different. Should Stoke or any club come calling, there is a price. The flexibility raises obvious concerns about the direction of the partnership.

The strongest sign of commitment to the whole Euro 2020 project is a contract that properly ties the manager down until Ireland's interest in that tournament ends - with no break clauses.

Make the most of March

Richard Dunne looked at the situation from the players' perspective on Newstalk on Thursday and he offered some interesting insights.

He said that once the dressing-room get an inkling that the boss might want to leave, they effectively start to look at the future with that idea in the back of their head. And they might interpret the FAI's actions in a certain way too.

"As a player, you're thinking if we lose a couple and he doesn't fancy it anymore, then he might leave," said Dunne. "Or the FAI might just get rid of him. It (unsigned contract) makes it seem the FAI aren't bothered if he's manager and he's not bothered if he stays or not and it doesn't give you confidence going forward."

Right now, the key members of the dressing-room have club matters or injury rehabilitation to keep them occupied.

However, it could prove quite useful - if O'Neill is sticking around - that March's game in Turkey is not just a fly-by-night gathering but instead consists of a training camp in Antalya and then a match.

It is safe to assume that a number of young players and perhaps even some uncapped players will be invited along for the trip.

But the leaders of the next generation should be a part of the trip too. That is the opportunity to nip any uncertainty in the bud and stress that this is the start of a process geared towards the long haul.

Get fans back on side

Don't discount the importance of this point. After all, O'Neill did cite high season-ticket sales in defence of his position in October and that reflected the mood as the World Cup campaign approached the business end.

Still, when the FAI pressed for a new deal, they were taking a bold step - the public were not exactly crying out for it.

Denmark was damaging, and this week it is striking that a large number of punters appear to be unflustered about the prospect of change.

There is a contradiction here. The squad needs refreshing and that requires patience. But a run of losses is not going to help build the good vibes again; there is a risk that the autumn Nations League games will have a bit more riding on them than could initially have been envisaged.

The FAI need commitment from match-going supporters too and if uncertainty over management leads to apathy then the dynamic could change very quickly.

Irish Independent

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