O'Neill set for Stoke move
FAI face search for new boss with Keane likely to join Ireland manager in Premier League return
The FAI are resigned to losing manager Martin O'Neill to Stoke City after he reopened talks with the Premier League club last night following the shock decision of the club's first choice for the job, Quique Sanchez Flores, to turn it down.
Any confidence at Abbotstown that O'Neill might belatedly sign his new two-year contract along with Roy Keane and the rest of his coaching staff disappeared after the Espanyol manager said yesterday he is staying at the La Liga club.
Attention is expected to quickly turn to finding a replacement, with former manager Mick McCarthy an early contender.
McCarthy, now 58, is out of contract at the end of the season after six years at Ipswich Town, the longest-serving reign in the Championship. Owner Marcus Evans has told the Barnsley-born ex-Ireland international that he will not stand in his way if his country come calling again before his contract expires. Neither will Evans seek any compensation from the FAI.
McCarthy took over as Ireland manager from Charlton in 1996 and qualified for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan before he was forced to quit after a poor start to the following Euro 2004 campaign, in the wake of Roy Keane's departure from Saipan.
Even though O'Neill is understood to have told Stoke chairman Peter Coates on Friday that he no longer wanted to be considered for the vacancy, following Mark Hughes' sacking last week, he kept lines of communication open with the Potters' board.
O'Neill's surprise decision to appear at the Irish Soccer Writers' banquet with his staff on Friday night had heightened speculation that he would agree to stay for an additional two years as the Ireland manager and lead the campaigns for the UEFA Nations League and Euro 2020.
But after refusing to speak to his hosts in the Irish media before returning to England early yesterday morning, O'Neill has briefed close confidants that he had a change of heart and would speak to Stoke. His initial stance is believed to have hardened the Premier League strugglers resolve to appoint him and offer a longer deal.
It is expected that his assistant Keane, who was being lined up as his Ireland successor, will join him at the Bet365 Stadium and the pair could be in charge for Stoke's visit to Keane's former club Manchester United tomorrow night.
Peter Coates, who celebrated his 80th birthday yesterday, made O'Neill his number one choice following the sacking of Hughes, who was the club's second Premier League manager in 10 years after Tony Pulis.
But his son Jonathan, who is increasing his responsibilities at the club, preferred former Watford boss Flores, and flew to meet the 52-year-old in Barcelona on Thursday - the same day O'Neill talked to Coates Senior.
The Stoke board offered Flores a five-year deal and expected him to confirm his desire to return to England after his side's league game against Athletic Bilbao today. His about-turn came as a surprise yesterday morning, although there were hints of it while O'Neill was at Friday night's banquet in the Conrad Hotel.
Although a positive spin was already being put on O'Neill's position as Ireland manager, and his apparent desire to lead the country into the new campaigns, he has paid close attention to the criticism from fans, former players and media since the heavy World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark.
He had verbally agreed to stay on as for at least another two years and head the rebuilding of the senior and underage teams, but the FAI's failure to secure his signature since that agreement was made in October has returned to haunt them.
Indeed, it emerged yesterday that O'Neill also spoke to Everton before they appointed Sam Allardyce.
O'Neill has never been relegated from the Premier League, where he has had spells with Leicester City, Aston Villa and Sunderland, who he last managed in the division five years ago before he was sacked by owner Ellis Short.
The 65-year-old led Ireland to the European Championship finals in France and second place in the last World Cup qualifying group before crashing out in the play-offs. He has never hidden his desire to return to club management and Keane will also have an opportunity to be mentored into a number one role by O'Neill, which could be an additional attraction for the Stoke board.
In the meantime, the week-long farce over whether O'Neill was staying or going could have serious implications for FAI chief executive John Delaney who was convinced O'Neill would not renege on their verbal agreement, which was made just days before the final World Cup group game in Wales in October.
As well as the embarrassing fall-out from O'Neill's messy departure, he must now prepare for a new search for a replacement. Former Swansea boss Paul Clement and Dundalk's Stephen Kenny are in the running along with McCarthy. Michael O'Neill would have been another strong candidate but he seems set to take over as Scotland boss
Keane is still in the frame but Delaney may struggle to convince him to leave O'Neill's side after their successful partnership of the last four years.
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