Hoops size up options as O'Neill heads for exit door
THE end of an era is imminent, with Michael O'Neill and Shamrock Rovers set to part ways after Thursday's Europa League meeting with Spurs at the Tallaght Stadium.
It is a slightly unfortunate end to what has been a wonderful story, with the Northern Irishman restoring the club to its former glory during a trophy-laden three years with the Hoops.
Alas, the situation surrounding his contract has been the elephant in the room throughout 2011, even while the League of Ireland champions were producing heroics in Europe to go where no domestic side has gone before.
Those feats have helped deliver financial stability to the club, a contrast to the general picture around the country. However, the departure of the manager means that Rovers will share in some of the winter uncertainty, even if they are still likely to have their pick of a large number of applicants.
Certainly, there's plenty of food for thought at the conclusion of a memorable adventure.
HOW HAS IT COME TO THIS?
The bottom line is there has been a breakdown in negotiations over a new deal, and it's hardly a huge surprise given the vibes over the last couple of weeks.
Ultimately, the 42-year-old has been unable to find agreement with the club under certain headings; not just related to the terms of a deal, but also aspects of future direction.
The Hoops authorities were perturbed when O'Neill publicly expressed his interest in the Northern Ireland post at a point when the feeling was that he was about to sign a deal to extend his Rovers tenure.
It's understood that the manager feels the club could have made a bigger attempt to tie him down earlier in the year, but the Rovers authorities would contest that.
The conflicting opinions are symptomatic of a relationship that looks to have run its course.
WHAT NEXT FOR O'NEILL?
Northern Ireland are deliberating over the identity of their next manager, with O'Neill on the shortlist along with his assistant Jim Magilton, and some other former Northern Ireland internationals. The IFA are at the interview stage.
Clearly, they are taking their time to find the right man. Presumably, if they had somebody in mind from the outset, they would bypass a lengthy process and head-hunt.
They have denied offering the role to Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers on a part-time basis, but appear to be exploring options beyond the stock list of candidates. In other words, there's no guarantee that O'Neill will land the post, so he could be left in limbo over winter. That said, with his burgeoning reputation, he shouldn't be out of work for too long.
There's just no guarantee that his next gig will be a dream offer.
HOW WILL THIS IMPACT
Only five of the Hoops squad are tied down for 2012. The rest are effectively out of contract once the Spurs match is out of the way, and it's natural that confusion over the identity of the boss will affect their thinking.
Certain Rovers players took to Twitter yesterday to hail O'Neill's achievements, notably young striker Karl Sheppard, who is sure to be in demand after impressing in the latter stages of the European adventure.
The club will be conscious of the risk factor in taking time to identify a new man.
From a League of Ireland perspective, they should be relatively comfortable in the knowledge that the Hoops are a side that will be attractive to most players -- it would be strange if squad members took the first offer from another league outfit before waiting to see what happens in Tallaght.
More relevant, perhaps, is the interest of cross-channel clubs in the promising young players.
It's hard for the Hoops to compete with sides that are able to offer 52-week deals when they are planning to carry on with 40-week contracts -- it's harder when they have no manager to convince them to stay.
WHO ARE THE CANDIDATES
TO REPLACE O'Neill?
The rumour mill went into overdrive yesterday. While Rovers have tried to retain O'Neill, the situation has been so delicate that they have naturally thought about the other options that are out there.
It's a question of whether the Hoops are willing to do as they did in 2008 and look outside the usual League of Ireland circle.
The two candidates within the league that will be mentioned are Sligo boss Paul Cook and Derry supremo Stephen Kenny. The latter has failed to endear himself to Hoops authorities, though, and Cook has natural ambitions to get back to England at some stage in the future.
One of the other names doing the rounds is well regarded ex-Bournemouth and Doncaster boss Sean O'Driscoll, an English born 54-year-old from an Irish background. Yet if the Hoops are looking for a manager from that market, then the 40-week part-time structure could be a stumbling block.
It's a job that should appeal to ex-Irish internationals looking for a start in management, with Kenny Cunningham and Gary Breen two possible applicants.
Former Irish boss Brian Kerr is out of work, but international management is his interest, and he's in the mix for the Malta job.
With the club's profile across the water enhanced by their European exploits, they should expect some interest from left-field.