Tuesday 23 January 2018

O'Neill tying himself up in knots

Contract u-turn the latest bizarre twist in Euro 2016 preparations

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill in pensive mood in Versailles ahead of Monday’s Euro 2016 Group E opener against Sweden. Picture Credit: Sportsfile.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill in pensive mood in Versailles ahead of Monday’s Euro 2016 Group E opener against Sweden. Picture Credit: Sportsfile.

"I'm not winding down. I've never felt like that. I don't feel like this is my last job - I feel very, very young."

That's the quote from Martin O'Neill which has everyone puzzled. Mainly because he claims he can't remember saying it. He's tying him self up in knots.

Yesterday, after putting his Ireland squad through it's paces in a very lively first training session at the Stade Montbauron Versailles base, he told us that FAI CEO John Delaney had "persuaded" him that signing a new deal was a good plan.

On Sunday in an interview with an English broadsheet it was very clear that he was still thinking of his career in the long term, unless the author has made a spectacular blunder.

"When did I say that? I don't remember saying that," he said when it was put him.

Given the fact that the quote has been out there in the digital ether now for the guts of a week, was repeated in many different newspapers and websites and no effort was made to seek a withdrawal or retraction, it can be reasonably assumed that he did say it.


And if he said it, how can we explain what can only be described a s a spectacular u-turn on his stated position when he was last asked about his FAI contract at pretty much any time since January.

For weeks and months, his line was a holding operation, a "let's wait and see" approach which in the language of football, usually means a manager has other plans.

If you asked any of the people in the FAI, the media or the general populace whether O'Neill and Roy Keane would still be with us for the next World Cup campaign, not many would have given a positive answer.

He was keeping his options open and nobody could argue with that.

He won himself some high ground with qualification for the Euro 2016 finals and had really earned the right to take a step back and see what the football world had to offer in July when this tournament is done.

Likewise Keane who, before he cut loose in Cork, seemed to have smoothed away many of the edges which made him difficult to employ and was ready to venture forth again into the cut-throat world of football management in England.

Now, you have to wonder.

"John and I have shaken hands on an extension and that's fine by me," he said and when asked why his thinking changed so dramatically, he credited Delaney's powers of persuasion.

"John essentially was wanting to do it, he was looking for a bit of continuity like everything else. He's persuaded me to do it."

One of the issues O'Neill has cited in the past and in some detail, was the possibility that the hero of the Bosnia qualification play-off could easily become a zero in France.

"Well, I always have that view anyway. Always. But if that's something that the FAI wanted to do then I'm happy to go along with it.

"I've shaken hands on the deal and I'm going with it. I can't really say much more than that," said the Ireland boss.

Many people will wonder why this is important heading into the first game of Euro 2016 in and whether such a focus on his contract is relevant or even wise.

Once again, O'Neill can look in the mirror for the answer to that one.

If someone holds a very strong position on something under steady questioning over a long period of time, of course it will raise eyebrows when he shifts dramatically.

All he had to do yesterday was to say he had changed his mind and that would have been the end of it.

So instead of concentrating on Jon Walters' race for fitness, which he seems to be winning, or on the fact that the tempo and intensity of training yesterday was very impressive, the media in Versailles are thinking about contracts.

This was all avoidable, every bit of it.

If he had not been so indiscreet in the Cork Opera House, if Roy Keane had stuck to the rules and not criticised players in public and if O'Neill had simply said he changed his mind on the contract, we would have had a stately progress towards Sweden.

Instead, we've had one ridiculous event after another and O'Neill has become more withdrawn by the day. All of it totally unnecessary.

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