Friday 20 July 2018

'Perhaps with all the cutbacks in Abbotstown, they weren't able to find a pen' - Brian Kerr on Martin O'Neill contract farce

This week has seen Martin O’Neill seemingly move closer to the exit door with his future as Ireland manager still unclear. Photo: Getty
This week has seen Martin O’Neill seemingly move closer to the exit door with his future as Ireland manager still unclear. Photo: Getty

Brian Kerr

Last November's play-off defeat tore Ireland's world apart.

And it almost seems as if the last man out of the Aviva Stadium that night not only flicked off all the lights but knocked off all the electrics while he was at it.

Irish football has been in darkened limbo since then. There has been a sense of drift. A little like the last knockings of that humiliating 5-1 defeat to Denmark, it appears as if nobody is in charge.

The contrast to the weeks preceding it was startling.

As Martin O'Neill prepared for the final two matches of the qualification campaign, against Moldova and Wales, a manager who would normally prefer not to look beyond the next game had suddenly acquired the gift of 20/20 vision.

"I think there is a willingness on both sides. I've had a conversation with John not so long ago and John would like me to continue," said O'Neill about his chat with chief executive John Delaney, before going on to say that this was not the day to discuss something that he clearly had no difficulty in discussing.

Indeed, he also managed to have to hand the figures in relation to season-ticket sales which, he claimed, had risen significantly during his time in charge.

It seemed slightly surprising to me that he should deliver this odd statement with such unusual timing.

But I have to say that at the time, I admired O'Neill for his move; perhaps there was a little touch of envy too, especially from those who may have been left dangling by the FAI in the past.

Next thing we knew, no more than a few hours later, the FAI had whisked the manager into a small, square room and revealed to the world that there had, indeed, been a meeting of substantial minds and a contract extension had been agreed.

However, the other surprising aspect about the timing of all this could easily be gleaned by glancing at the run of results.

On the eve of the Moldova match, Ireland had only one win in seven matches and that was a friendly against Uruguay.

At the turn of the year, Ireland had led their qualifying group and were in control of their destiny.

The FAI decision, apparently made by the board, seemed to be a resounding confirmation of their confidence in the entire senior management staff and their methodology.

Still, it was strange that the FAI had allowed themselves to be out-manoeuvred on the contract announcement, particularly in such a high-profile situation.

Normally it is the other way around.

The FAI and Delaney had much earlier insisted they would not make any decision on a new contract until the qualifying campaign had been concluded but something had clearly caused everyone to make a dramatic leap.

A leap into what remained for a long time the unknown.

But still, back in October, it seemed everybody was happy.

That was three months ago. Perhaps with all the cutbacks in Abbotstown, they weren't able to find a pen.

Where has everybody disappeared to?

We have heard that the FAI and the senior management were upset after the Denmark defeat - lots of people were - but the dramatic departure of all the main personalities from a spotlight under which they are normally so comfortable has been very odd indeed.

It's almost like it's a down-time for the game here. Ah sure, the League of Ireland is closed for the winter. There isn't a competitive international match for 18 months. What's the rush?

But these factors shouldn't ever portray an impression that the FAI may have closed down since November. Now we find that may have been the case.

Has anybody picked up the telephone to make a call? Has anybody been answering the phone? Has there been complete hibernation? Did the Christmas holidays start in November?

If the FAI thought the management were deserving of new contracts, they had a responsibility to follow it up and ensure that those agreements were concluded.

Even if there may have been no truth in the Everton interest in O'Neill, the fact that particular saga dragged on so long should have rang enough warning bells in Abbotstown.

Perhaps there was nobody there to hear them. A board member did emerge, ever so briefly, to declare that "the contract was agreed and it was a matter of signing it".

This was now late November. And still nothing happened.

For their part, there have been relatively few reports or sightings of the management team at any matches in England since the play-off defeat; it would be the usual routine to read in the papers that 'Joe Bloggs was being watched by the Irish manager'.

The little we do know is that there have been friendlies announced in Turkey and France this year; Ireland were due to hold a four-day training camp in Turkey before the March fixture.

Presumably the manager and the FAI will have already been in contact regarding the plans for that, the particular requirements for a 40-man squad, the location of the training base and various other issues.

Who is actually in charge here?

It is not as if the FAI are unfamiliar with whatever scenario is unfolding. They have been here before with O'Neill in 2016 when that contract signing took several months to arrange between announcement and confirmation.

One might have suspected that experience could have forewarned them of the measures required to get matters done properly this time around.

But no, nothing.

Even early this week, there was an unofficial briefing from somebody, somewhere in the FAI, insisting that not only had nobody been in touch with them but that nothing had changed.

How can nothing change if nothing is happening?

So much could have been happening in the past two months as Ireland seek to move on from the World Cup failure and build for the future.

True, the last campaign was a missed opportunity.

If, as now seems likely, the management stay on, there needs to be more coherence in their approach but also more connection with the game in this country.

There has been no lack of publicity and colourful press conferences but little substance in the connection with the other levels of the game here or the development of the new breed of players.

If the FAI remain committed to this management team, they need to demonstrate they are part of the bigger picture of Irish football.

And if the management don't think the players are good enough, the FAI should insist upon their involvement in a new production line. But those in charge need to lead the way.

The lack of football or entertainment was the most obvious factor surrounding the team and its performances in 2017 and with little to get excited about in the 2018 calendar, the majority of Irish supporters would probably have liked to see a change of the top management.

Both men will have been stung by the Denmark failure but can they be stung into action?

We scored 12 goals, the lowest of any second-placed team across the European qualifying groups; Italy also scored 12 but in eight matches.

The trend in football is towards more and more goals and entertainment; the Irish international team stand apart in splendid isolation.

The players are there but the manager's deep knowledge and experience needs to be adapted; more precise and tactical planning, with clarity of roles and positions, are required.

International football management is about commitment. A manager must be committed to working as hard as he can to do his job to the best of his ability.

And the Association must demonstrate the same sense of commitment to create these circumstances.

Perhaps everything was hunky dory and this has been much ado about nothing. Perhaps the FAI and the management team were always going to sign a new contract.

It just seems like a strange of way of doing business and demonstrating commitment.

Once that commitment begins to waver from either side, there is unlikely to be a happy ending.

Irish Independent

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