O'Neill: Door still open after Ireland blanked my calls – but I won't go begging
Martin O'Neill insisted yesterday he has no intention of pleading with Stephen Ireland to return to international football after it emerged that the Stoke City midfielder has been blanking the Irish manager's telephone calls.
In the latest chapter of this long-running saga, Ireland has tried the patience of yet another Irish manager. However, despite Ireland's evident lack of respect, O'Neill – surprisingly – is prepared to forgive, forget and welcome the Cobh man back into his squad.
"The door remains open," said the Irish manager. "But I won't go begging to him."
And nor should he because after seven years of self-imposed exile from the international scene, it seems absurd that Ireland should still be asking for more time to consider his position.
Yet this is what has happened after a month when O'Neill – and senior FAI administrator Mary O'Brien – made futile attempts to make contact with him, before being told, via Ireland's agent, that he would not be making himself available for the upcoming internationals against Turkey, Italy, Costa Rica and Portugal.
"The order of events was as follows," said O'Neill yesterday. "I had a meeting with a couple of the Stoke City players a few weeks ago but deliberately didn't want to speak to Stephen in that group.
"I wanted to have that type of conversation with him on a one-on-one basis.
"So I called him to get something organised. There was no answer, which was fine because I'm not always immediately responsive myself to phone calls. At the same time we had the FAI trying to make contact also.
"No answer came. Then his agent called Mary to say that Stephen would like to be considered but would like a conversation with me some time in July.
"Following on from what Mark Hughes had said in a newspaper interview, I thought it was very obvious then that Stephen didn't want to be involved in these games.
"And look, if he's not going to be available this summer then that's fine with me. But what I'm saying is that if he wants to get involved with us down the line then he needs to know that I'm not going to continue chasing.
"If he phones me some time in July, of course I'll speak to him then. But he has to make the call – not me. It really is as simple as that."
However, with Ireland, nothing is simple and has not been since the night in 2007 when he told his team-mates he had to travel home and miss an important European championship qualifier against the Czech Republic because he was grieving for his grandmother, who he claimed had passed away that day.
When it emerged that Patricia Tallon was actually still alive, Ireland altered his story and 'killed off' another grandmother, Barbara Kitchener. Alas, she too survived her grandson's attempted cull.
Embarrassed by the nature of his lies,Ireland subsequently retired from international football. And ever since he has been playing a game of chase, suggesting he would like to return if asked. In response, four different Irish managers – Steve Staunton, Giovanni Trapattoni, Noel King and now O'Neill – have made him aware of their interest. And still he has not said yes.
"Other players have made themselves available, niggles and everything for these four matches," said O'Neill, "because they really want to be involved in the squad. It (the Stephen Ireland saga) is not a life or death issue with me. I've said this before – if Stephen really wants to involve himself here, he just has to call. But sometimes returning to a team can't always be on your terms.
"I said from the outset that I was open to anybody, even players who had actually retired – like Shay Given. I had an open mind then and have not closed my mind now on Stephen, but there will be a stage when I will have to say, 'well listen, if you really want to genuinely come and play then you have to give me a shout and say 'I want to be considered'."
"At some stage I will move on because I am not really into begging players to play. I wanted to meet up with him. It didn't happen. Why? Well, when you call someone and he does not answer, that kind of makes it tricky, doesn't it? These things are more easily organised when someone rings you back."
Yet the only person who rang O'Neill back was Ireland's agent. Does the manager feel the 27-year-old Cobh-man acted with a lack of respect? "I'll leave it for others to draw their own conclusion."
Two men who did answer O'Neill's call in the last month were Steve Walford and Steve Guppy, the latest additions to his back-room team. At this stage their positions are temporary – O'Neill and FAI chief executive John Delaney will evaluate their situation after the summer tour concludes.
Walford has worked with O'Neill on and off for more than 20 years, dating back to their days together at Wycombe. Guppy is a more recent addition to his entourage.
"Stevie (Guppy) is superb in one-on-one coaching sessions," said O'Neill. "And Steve Walford is just brilliant on the training ground. It's great to have them on board. What happens after these four games remains unclear."
As it always is with Ireland.
Guide to the summer squad
David Forde (Millwall), Rob Elliot (Newcastle); Richard Keogh (Derby), Marc Wilson (Stoke), Seamus Coleman (Everton), John O'Shea (Sunderland), Alex Pearce, Stephen Kelly (both Reading), Damien Delaney (Ipswich), Shane Duffy (Everton), Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa), Stephen Ward (Brighton); Jeff Hendrick (Derby), Glenn Whelan (Stoke), Paul Green (Leeds), Aiden McGeady (Everton), Anthony Pilkington (Norwich), James McClean (Wigan), Stephen Quinn, David Meyler (both Hull), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich); Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Shane Long (Hull), Daryl Murphy (Ipswich), Jon Walters (Stoke), Kevin Doyle (QPR), Anthony Stokes (Celtic), Simon Cox (Nottingham Forest), Conor Sammon (Derby).
James McCarthy (ankle), Darren Randolph (shoulder) Joey O'Brien (knee).
Coming and going
Kevin Doyle, Jeff Hendrick, Conor Sammon and Richard Keogh will miss Sunday's game against Turkey because of their involvement in the Championship play-off final between Derby and QPR on Saturday.
Doyle, Hendrick and Keogh are available for the remaining three games against Italy, Costa Rica and Turkey, but Sammon will also miss the two matches in America when he will be on honeymoon.
Philadelphia here I come
Robbie Keane will join up with the squad in Philadelphia for the games against Costa Rica and Portugal but will not play against Turkey and Italy.
Rob Elliot is also tying the knot this summer so will miss the Italian game, but he is available for the other three matches.
Meanwhile, John O'Shea and Seamus Coleman will participate in the first two friendlies but will be excused from going to America, with O'Neill saying: "They've had long seasons; the break will do them good."