Wednesday 26 June 2019

Will the FAI pay price for loose deal with Martin O'Neill?

Martin O’Neill and John Delaney
Martin O’Neill and John Delaney
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

To lose one manager could be regarded as misfortune, but two looks like carelessness.

It's rare that an opportunity presents itself to mangle an Oscar Wilde quote and adapt it to the business of the FAI and Irish football.

But if Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane end up free to leave for Stoke because a handshake ultimately does not hold the same value as a contract, then it's an unfortunate situation for the powers that be in Abbotstown.

Unfortunate is the word because there was no doubt in October about the FAI's view of the current management team.

They were very keen to get O'Neill to commit for another qualifying campaign along with his staff and they took that view before the qualifier in Wales.

It was a brave move given Cardiff could have ended ignominiously. O'Neill was apparently surprised by the FAI's eagerness to get a deal done. Or enough of a deal to get the press release done, without actually having discussed detailed terms and conditions. That looked like foresight in the aftermath of James McClean's sweet winner; the 65-year-old had enough credit in the bank to ride out whatever unfolded in the play-off.

Regrettably, the horror of the Danish second leg significantly eroded that balance to the point where it was fair to float the possibility that a parting of ways might not be the worst scenario.

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Martin O’Neill has frequently hinted that Roy Keane would be the ideal successor. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill has frequently hinted that Roy Keane would be the ideal successor. Photo: Sportsfile

Heavy defeats like that one can leave a scar, and it would be a stretch to conclude that the public share the FAI hierarchy's unanimous view that they have the right management team for the Euro 2020 mission.

There are mixed feelings towards the package that were initially heralded as the dream team; there is a strong school of thought that a new voice in the dressing room might just be needed after five years of doing things their way.

Three campaigns is a lengthy stint by the standards of modern international management and a comparison could be drawn with Giovanni Trapattoni's troubled final two years in the job when the bruising experience in Poland was probably the time to say thank you and goodbye.

But the compelling argument for retaining the status quo was a valid question - who could do more with the current group of players? Especially when a quintet of senior pros - Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan, John O'Shea, Daryl Murphy and Jon Walters - could well have stepped away by the time the Euros effort kicks off.

O'Neill and Keane are on top of the brief and know what's out there in terms of emerging talent; they did bring some new faces into the camp across 2017 seemingly with an eye on the longer term.

And clearly the FAI weren't getting any stale vibes when they were so anxious to sort out the future before the World Cup race played itself out.

In that context, it will be hard for Abbotstown to put a positive slant on their judgement if O'Neill departs for Stoke and takes Keane with him.

O'Neill has been linked with a plethora of roles during his stay, and he did reject an approach from Leicester midway through the Euro 2016 campaign because there was still work to do with Ireland.

But the yawning gap between the Danish defeat and competitive business left a window for opportunities to arise. If the FAI remained steadfast in their belief that they had the right man, then pen should have been put to paper quickly.

They did meet with O'Neill to plan fixtures and a forthcoming trip to Switzerland for the UEFA Nations League, but there has been no white smoke on his contract.

The manager was relaxed enough to kick off the World Cup 2018 campaign without having signed the new contract that was flagged three months earlier, but it's the employer that should be worried about that loose an arrangement - especially when it appears that O'Neill's stock in the UK was not damaged by Denmark.

He was their asset, and the safety net was that he had a possible replacement alongside him. O'Neill has frequently hinted that Keane would be his ideal successor.

Granted, there would still be well-connected people in Irish football that find it hard to envisage the Corkman answering directly to the current FAI board - O'Neill handles that side of the gig - but the high-profile assistant was always flagged as a natural contender to step into the top job if it becomes vacant.

Therefore, if talks with Stoke go well and O'Neill takes Keane with him on a permanent basis, then the FAI are left in a tricky situation.

It's imperative they get the rebuilding job right and qualify for a European Championships that will be partially staged in Dublin, and they will have wasted three months if events at Stoke send them back to square one.

They didn't require 2020 vision to see this coming.


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