Saturday 24 March 2018

Stephen Hunt: Time for Martin O'Neill to prove he's with us or he's not

FAI have been soft in allowing O'Neill contract situation to drag on and become a talking point

‘Martin O’Neill has been making out the signing is imminent for almost a year now, but we still don’t even know how he’s getting paid at the moment. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
‘Martin O’Neill has been making out the signing is imminent for almost a year now, but we still don’t even know how he’s getting paid at the moment. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

I've never seen anything in top-level football like what's happening with Martin O'Neill's contract situation. The fact that the World Cup campaign has already started and he hasn't signed a deal is bizarre, peculiar and downright sloppy from the FAI, and it leads to a lot of questions way beyond the reason why he actually hasn't put pen to paper.

I don't mean to immediately put a negative spin on what I think was a good result against Serbia, but the very fact it was a positive makes the situation all the more deserving of questions.

Let's lay it out. What happens, say, if we're top of the group after three or four games and O'Neill gets a very lucrative offer from a Premier League club that's almost impossible to turn down? That may be an extreme example, but it's possible, and the kind of thing that's more possible if the business side of things isn't looked after 100 per cent. That's what this is. It's bad business.

And it's bad for long-term planning. With so much talk about player development and the infrastructure of Irish football right now, how can they plan for the future if they don't even know - in any official sense - whether the manager will be there in six months? The underage teams are supposed to take their lead from the boss of the senior side, after all, and are meant to be able to ask him what he wants from them. In the international set-up, everything comes from him. How can that happen now? How is this affecting what's happening behind the scenes?

To put it another way, I wouldn't let a head chef into the kitchen of my pub if I didn't know whether he was going to be sticking around. How can he be demanding commitment from the players and staff if he's not yet showing commitment himself? He should be the one showing the most commitment.

It's just all so vague. From an FAI perspective, it's far too loose.

Like, we're talking about a notionally elite sporting organisation that is meant to pride itself on a certain professional slickness, but it let this happen? It's almost the kind of thing you see at junior level, where a volunteer just continues. How can it be happening at this level?

I know the FAI have faith in O'Neill and trust the situation but, with the way the sporting world is now, a proper organisation can't really be going off old-school ideas like a handshake. It has to be more professional and legally binding than that.

How can an international manager not have agreed a contract? There must be something there stopping it. It's worse that, when they talk about it, it's all so unclear. O'Neill has been making out the signing is imminent for almost a year now, but we don't even know how he's getting paid at the moment. What is the current working arrangement? Is how he's getting paid still based on the old deal?

I imagine O'Neill is to be rewarded for the success of qualification, and that he might want a pay rise. Chris Coleman agreed a new deal with Wales before Euro 2016, but that sums it up. It's been signed.

The FAI have been far too soft with this. I think there should be a bit more hardness and more pressure. Good as O'Neill has been, it's not like we're waiting for Jose Mourinho. It's time for O'Neill to show commitment. You either say you're with us or you're not. Commit or we look elsewhere for someone who will commit and who allows us to plan. Simple. It's been going on too long for it to be any more complicated.

But the situation is so peculiar, and it feels like there's more to this than meets the eye. If you take the football out of it, and concentrate on it purely from a business perspective, it's so inefficient and sloppy.

In terms of the team itself, I do think Roy Keane is right, and it won't affect performance. The squad will talk about it, sure, but it's not a distraction.

Mentally weak players will use it as an excuse if the going gets tough and they start losing games, but I don't think that's the case here. The Serbia game showed that strength of character.

If you had asked the players whether they would take a point before the game, I think they would have said "fine". Three points would have been a bonus, so a draw in such an awkward fixture is a good start, especially when you consider it took us a while to really get going in the last campaign.

We didn't hit the performance highs of the Euro 2016 games against Italy and France but that is probably a little too much to expect, even if we would naturally want the team to evolve from what we saw in the summer. Those matches happened in a very specific context, with heightened stakes. That changes the dynamic. A qualification group is very different. It's a different rhythm, and comes down to the nous of getting results. Some elements of the Serbia game will help with that in future, among them the fact that Jeff Hendrick and Daryl Murphy got their first international goals.

With Hendrick, I think that was good man-management from Keane and O'Neill. Keane talked about him needing to get more goals before the game and, even if that was just answering media questions, it was clever use of the opportunity. It would have planted seeds in the player's mind.

I remember at Brentford when I was starting out and hadn't yet scored a goal, Steve Coppell saying to me on a Friday that I was going to win the game at the weekend. I scored two and got sent off. It put the idea in my head. It put the pressure on, sharpened me, and that's the only way to improve and develop.

It would have been easy for Hendrick to play on as usual with the praise he received but, to step up to the next level, you have to give more. You have to stand up to that extra pressure. And, whatever about the 'keeper being at fault, his shot was headed for the bottom corner. It was good technique on his weaker foot.

We then saw what has become a classically Irish situation - especially in the Giovanni Trapattoni era - where we went ahead early on and then withdrew. Some of that is obviously psychological. When you go ahead so quickly, it gives you something to hang on to. You're automatically in the mindset of defending, rather than playing on the front foot.

Now, people might say we should learn how to kill games when 1-0 up, but that's not really going to happen without deeper changes to our football culture. We might see it in the next few years, when more players come through from the possession approach Ruud Dokter is trying to instil. All of our players at the moment will have come through a culture where we defend with two banks of four and look to make it difficult. Changing it is easier said than done.

We should also be mindful we were playing Serbia, not Andorra, and the biggest thing for me was to go 2-1 down and come back. That shows a lot of character, and will do the team a lot of good. It will breed the idea that, as in the last campaign, we're never beaten until the final whistle goes.

The equalising goal will also do Murphy a lot of good. Knowing Murph, it would have bugged him he didn't score, as people had started discussing it, but he's not the angry sort. To put it in context, he now has the same international scoring record as me, something I was disappointed with, and he's a striker. So, more than anything, it's a weight off his shoulders to make it an even bigger week for him.

He got his move to Newcastle United, and then got his goal. That will help him maintain form, and he can prove a real handful when on his game. He's a good option for us. He bashes into people, he's awkward, but still has good feet.

He just needs to keep fit, and he'll be effective for us.

As regards Serbia as a whole, I think we saw enough to be confident we can beat them when we play them at home.

The hope is O'Neill's contract might finally be sorted before then.

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