Monday 24 September 2018

Difference of opinion between father and son, an unsigned contract and a welcome to Stoke video you will never see

Martin O'Neill may have a decision to make as odds-on favourite for Potters' vacancy, but the Ireland manager will not appreciate being second choice

Martin O'Neill and (Left, top) Peter Coates and (bottom) Flores
Martin O'Neill and (Left, top) Peter Coates and (bottom) Flores
Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Colin Young

The Stoke City 'Welcome to the Bet365, Quique' video package is ready for its online release. A friendly welcome for the new manager's benefit, complete with moody shots of the Potteries and a couple of Spanish translations. It was put together by the club's media department at the behest of the owners on Friday afternoon.

Now that version will never be made public. All it needed before a couple of buttons were pressed was confirmation from Spain that Quique Sanchez Flores had agreed to become the new Stoke City manager. The plan was to play it before their game at Manchester United tomorrow night. And then he would be in the Old Trafford dug-out. His unexpected change of heart has surprised everyone. Not least Martin O'Neill.

If Martin O’Neill takes the Stoke City job, Roy Keane will probably be alongside him Photo: Getty
If Martin O’Neill takes the Stoke City job, Roy Keane will probably be alongside him Photo: Getty

When he left Dublin early yesterday morning, the Derryman believed he would eventually be returning as the Republic of Ireland manager and Sanchez Flores would be in charge for Stoke at United.

Although O'Neill had taken several phone calls in the presence of journalists at the Soccer Writers' Association of Ireland (SWAI) banquet on Friday night, there was still no confirmation of Sanchez Flores's exact intentions until he sat down with reporters yesterday lunchtime. Unlike O'Neill the previous night, Flores was only too happy to talk to the media and confirmed he would definitely be staying at his job in Catalonia.

That was also the news O'Neill had imparted to the FAI and Stoke chairman Peter Coates on his own situation before he made his tardy appearance as the SWAI's guest with Roy Keane and the rest of his coaching staff in the Conrad Hotel on Friday night.

By the time he had arrived home in the Midlands yesterday, however, before originally intending to head to The Hawthorns to take in the West Brom versus Brighton game as part of his Irish managerial duties, the news from Barcelona was changing. By lunchtime, Sanchez Flores confirmed he wanted to stay with Espanyol. O'Neill was back in the frame and Sanchez Flores's decision had strengthened the resolve at Stoke to hire him. It has also put the Ireland manager in a stronger bargaining position and he can be persuaded to change his mind again.

That was welcome news for Peter Coates and the ideal present on his 80th birthday. O'Neill was always his preferred choice in the wake of Mark Hughes's sacking last week, but he had been persuaded by his son Jonathan that former Watford boss Sanchez Flores would be easier for the younger man to work with for years, and not just months.

There is no power struggle at Stoke but there is an inevitable change of ownership and direction coming for a club who have hired just two managers in the 10 years they have been in the Premier League. Peter Coates maintains his daily involvement but Jonathan is taking more of the responsibilities away from him.

So it was natural that the son would take the lead in an appointment which is intended to drag Stoke away from the relegation pack and build for the future. While his father made calls to garner O'Neill's interest in the role, Jonathan flew to Barcelona to meet Sanchez Flores, armed with a contract and a few quid.

At 52, Sanchez Flores, who led Watford to 13th and an FA Cup semi-final in his one season at Vicarage Road three years ago, is more in keeping with the younger coach's reliance on science, stats and technology. This modern approach was more in keeping with the direction Jonathan Coates wants to go, which is why he was prepared to offer a five-year contract.

And throughout the negotiations, Coates junior seemed confident he would get his man, hence the tip-off to the media department and O'Neill's surprise decision to turn up for the annual writers' dinner after all. He cancelled weeks ago but changed his mind on Friday morning.

It has another feature of a farcical week.

* * * * *

On Friday morning, a choice. Get that contract signed, pledge commitment to the Irish cause, pretend that nothing happened other than a couple of phonecalls, and prepare for the upcoming campaigns and plenty of stick. Or, O'Neill and FAI chief executive John Delaney accept that his bluff has been called and he walks from the Ireland job.

O'Neill's unexpected appearance and subsequent silence at the banquet on Friday night may have been another PR disaster for the manager and the FAI, but whatever lay behind its intentions, it seemed to confirm that he was here to stay.

In fact, Quique Sanchez Flores's protracted response to Stoke's offer left O'Neill in limbo as he dined at the Conrad. The Espanyol coach was expected to announce his decision to accept it after their La Liga game against Athletic Bilbao today. O'Neill told Stoke he was no longer interested. Second choice was not good enough. He was ready to carry on as Ireland manager, if Delaney still wanted him.

On Saturday morning, a different choice.

This morning, a decision.

* * * * *

Three months ago, this newspaper broke the story that O'Neill had not signed his new deal. It had been hastily agreed and announced on an FAI tweet and video in the run-up to the final group game in Wales. That left the manager open to consider job offers from Premier League or Championship clubs. The FAI spent so much time questioning the veracity of the story, they forgot one key element. Its veracity.

The sources who said there was the possibility of O'Neill being lured back into club football, with Roy Keane as his deputy, were spot on. But they were also ridiculed at Abbotstown. In fact, reading it now, that story was stating the obvious. It seems the contract has not been signed because it hasn't been drawn up yet.

When I wrote that story, I was warned that although O'Neill is an old-school man of his word - one of many traits he shares with his mentor Brian Clough - and was happy to stay as Ireland manager after proper discussions with Delaney, he might be swayed by the reaction to the dénouement of the qualifying campaign.

The line would not appear in the final copy because we were part of the 'media backlash', but it is undoubtedly true. Throughout his career, O'Neill has taken criticism personally and hardly a football writer has crossed his path in England without being reminded of an article or headline if it was less than complimentary. And we are talking years later and not just weeks or months.

O'Neill anticipated criticism from the media after the defeat to Denmark, but the number of former internationals who questioned his wisdom after the humiliation against his former team-mate Age Hareide did surprise him. Niall Quinn's honest assessment of Ireland's World Cup exit at the hands of Denmark and Christian Eriksen was typical.

2017-11 (7807) (Read-Only).jpg
Christian Eriksen scores Denmark's second goal Photo: Reuters/Lee Smith

O'Neill, he said, betrayed the beliefs which got Ireland to the play-offs and he blew it. But, Quinn emphasised, it did not change his belief that O'Neill is the only man to lead Ireland.

Even before Eriksen blitzed the Aviva, any lack of appreciation in the country for Ireland's Euro 2016 endeavours and World Cup play-off qualification, with the limited Premier League resources available to him, had not gone unnoticed. But, as his critics have reminded him, neither has the resurgence of Northern Ireland on the international stage under Michael O'Neill and the discrepancy in their wages and resources.

O'Neill, and Keane, were prepared to stay on and sign the contracts, taking their time, as they did with their most recent deal. It was also a good excuse. The last one took nearly four months to sign. But they were bound to be swayed by the jobs in the Premier League and Championship which would come up during the impasse. No harm asking. No harm talking.

As soon as Hughes was sacked a week ago, O'Neill was in the running and he took the call from Stoke in midweek. Those talks between O'Neill and Stoke City caused alarm at the FAI, and somehow seem to have come as a complete surprise, even though it was not the first approach. He was linked with a return to Leicester, and talked to Everton before they appointed Sam Allardyce.

Several public and private engagements in Dublin were cancelled last week in another botched attempt to pretend that nothing was happening.

And then suddenly, they were back on again. O'Neill may have kept them at a distance but he has attended every Irish Soccer Writers' awards night as the manager, like many of his predecessors who, with one exception, have always enjoyed a more cordial and relaxed relationship with their hosts.

The Ireland team which will evolve over the next two campaigns is dependent on the next manager because, as he builds a new team, he knows he will have to gamble and perhaps rely on the inexperienced players in their early- to mid-20s who are emerging intermittently in some Premier League teams or, hopefully, playing regularly in the Championship.

The research O'Neill and his team of Keane, Steve Walford, Steve Guppy and Seamus McDonagh, and other scouts and contacts across the English, Scottish and Irish leagues, cannot be overlooked. Not many games are, at any level. Not many stones have been left unturned in the search for first- and second-generation academy players.

And O'Neill's interest in his successors' inheritance extends to supporting the FAI's plan to develop players at home and make them better prepared for life and football in England, as it remains the land of fortune. If Keane does not follow O'Neill to Stoke, he remains the manager's preferred and, to him at least, the obvious choice to replace him. His assistant's fervent support in such matters would not have gone unnoticed at the top.

* * * * *

Will Martin O'Neill be in charge at Old Trafford tomorrow night? Unless Sanchez Flores has another change of heart, or a last-minute plea from Jonathan Coates does the trick, it seems likely. If O'Neill is there, Roy Keane will probably be alongside him.

Although the former Ireland captain has been quietly persuading his boss to stay with Ireland, thus enhancing his prospect of taking the main role eventually, a return to club management will be to Keane's liking.

He has enjoyed his time as O'Neill's assistant. Rather than antagonise each other with their quirkiness, the pair have gelled to form a partnership which is particularly strong in the dressing room environment. The Ireland players like them. They will be missed.

* * * * *

Mick McCarthy, Paul Clement, Stephen Kenny, Neil Lennon, Michael O'Neill . . . so the speculation starts and the bookies prepare their odds. John Delaney must decide who takes the salary now as he prepares to accept Martin O'Neill is leaving.

The new manager has a rebuilding programme ahead, the return of Seamus Coleman to look forward to, new talent in the Championship to call up, develop and enhance, old heads to turn in the direction of the team rather than retirement.

Delaney is still hoping to persuade O'Neill to stay and talked to him throughout yesterday. His pending departure may have alerted him to the alternatives in the market for international football but O'Neill has always been his number one choice to lead the country in the UEFA Nations League and Euro 2020. He will take his time over the next appointment and could even wait until after the World Cup finals when even more experienced coaches will be available.

And then there is a good chance the CEO will draw up the contract with his own hand and make sure his new manager signs it.

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