Unhappy ending to O'Neill's magical story
A strange end to a wonderful year for Shamrock Rovers.
December 15 was marked with a red circle on the calendar when the Europa League group stages draw was made in Monaco.
It was the night that everyone involved with the Hoops was looking forward to, the first competitive visit of an English club to Ireland in 27 years and another landmark moment in the short history of Tallaght Stadium.
Ultimately, the arrival of a depleted Tottenham side has proved to be the sideshow, even if excitement levels are sure to shoot up before this evening's 6.0 kick-off. The story of the week has been the departure of Michael O'Neill, a poorly kept secret that was officially confirmed yesterday just as he kicked off his final training session.
Rovers sent out of a missive before the press conference that followed, stating that questions about the future were off the agenda. But there was no avoiding the elephant in the room.
"It's sad to leave any club," O'Neill said. "I played for 14 clubs, so you get used to the sadness. It's like getting ditched continually by girlfriends, you get used to it. My career moves on. The three years have been very enjoyable, hard work, and a huge challenge."
The Armagh man acknowledged that it had ended badly.
"I wouldn't say it's amicable," he said. "It's probably a sad way for the season to end. It would have been nice to continue and build on the progress we've made, but it's not to be."
Over time, it's possible that the reasons for his leaving will get bogged down amid claim and counterclaim. It would be a dreadful shame if it took away from the memories of the good days, of which there were plenty, even if there's a niggling feeling that the wider public have underestimated the leap that was made in Belgrade.
Last week, at the Philips Manager of the Year awards, O'Neill rubbed shoulders with the other bosses who had enjoyed success in the past 12 months. Perhaps the fact that his team's magic night in Serbia wasn't covered by RTE was the main reason that a clip of the Hoops lasted for a couple of seconds, squeezed in between lengthy, evocative montages of the respective GAA award winners and footage of every Irish strike in the play-off win over Estonia.
Nevertheless, the decision to name the absent Giovanni Trapattoni as boss of the year was a dubious one. If management is about getting the best from your resources, then he wasn't even Irish football's top manager of 2011. Leading Ireland to the Euros falls behind what O'Neill delivered in taking Rovers to the group stage table.
The counterpoint is that losing the five subsequent Europa League ties has somehow taken away from O'Neill's achievement, an observation which is akin to denigrating a mountain climber for scaling Kilimanjaro but falling short on the ascent up Everest.
By comparison, Trapattoni's victory over Estonia is like reaching the top of Croagh Patrick -- just with more people watching. And that's the unfortunate thing, really. When the camera crews and satellite vans pull out of Tallaght Stadium this evening, the League of Ireland champions will return to reality. Not that club officials were expecting it to be any other way.
However, with O'Neill leaving, and a number of players receiving letters from the club to say they are free to sign on the dole, it's a humbling conclusion that really emphasises the magnitude of getting to this level.
Skipper Dan Murray admitted he was unsure about his immediate future, and had no real answer when asked what it was like to take on a Premier League side one day and face unemployment the next. He just grinned and feigned to throw his hands up in the air.
"It's just what it is," he said, "I don't think there will be full 52-week contracts, and maybe that'll be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to doing what we've done again."
Discussions about future direction were a part of the contract impasse between O'Neill and the club, if not the sole issue. "There was no financial element," O'Neill said.
"Improvements can be made in many ways, and I still felt there were improvements which could be made on the pitch."
The 42-year-old is frustrated by some of the constraints of working within the league, though, elements which are outside the control of Rovers. Asked if a League of Ireland club could qualify for the group stages again, his answer was telling.
"The structure of the league, and where it's going financially, is making it much more difficult," he said. "For the better players, the younger players, the options are outside the league."
That's where O'Neill is heading too. He will be interviewed by Northern Ireland next week and other offers are likely to crop up. Some Rovers sources believe that even if he'd signed on the dotted line this time around, renewed speculation was inevitable. When he publicly registered his interest in replacing Nigel Worthington, the writing was on the wall.
It was one of the reasons why the Hoops weren't heartbroken about the failure of negotiations. The time to separate had come.
Inevitably, discussion turned to the highlights of his reign, and Stephen Rice's lead goal at White Hart Lane back in September was put forward as a suggestion. On a reflective day, O'Neill was thinking in different terms.
"Not really, no," he replied, "I would say the most enjoyable night was the first night here in Tallaght, when we beat Sligo. To see the supporters faces that night having been 20 years on the road, to see what it meant to everybody to win the game. That was a highlight for me."
It served as a reminder of how far the club have come in a relatively short time, from homelessness to a position where welcoming Spurs is a footnote.
During training yesterday, the manager and players gathered on the pitch and discussed finishing their time together in style.
"It could be the last game for a lot of the players as well," warned Murray. "The manager has brought pretty much every single player to the club. He was saying, 'forget about anyone else, look after yourself, so you can hold your head up high after the game'."
Fittingly, in that context, the final word fell to O'Neill.
"Hopefully," he said, "for the supporters and the members who worked so hard to keep the club alive, they'll look back and say they've enjoyed the three years."
Whatever about the manner of the parting, there's nobody with an affiliation to the club who could say otherwise.
Shamrock Rovers v Spurs,
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