Monday 18 February 2019

O'Neill's new deal to stay a gamble that could backfire

Manager and assistant Keane sign up for Euro 2020 campaign

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill oversees training ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Moldova at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill oversees training ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Moldova at the Aviva Stadium
The Irish squad train ahead of this evening’s World Cup Group D qualifier against Moldova at the Aviva Stadium

Like so many issues in the recent history of Irish football and FAI politics, this will be seen either as a master-stroke or a dreadful and poorly-timed error.

The challenge for Martin O'Neill this week was, and still is, to get two World Cup wins tucked away so Ireland can finish in second place in the Group D table and maybe, just maybe, make the play-offs and then sweep onwards to Russia.

But with the FAI's decision to hand him a new deal, announcing that (bizarrely) just 25 hours before kick-off in the final home game of the group stage of qualification, the dynamic behind this management team has changed.

The Wales/Moldova double-header is no longer do or die, all or nothing, a chance for O'Neill, his staff and his players to show that the recent poor form was a mere blip and that the "doom and gloom" surrounding the team of late was, as David Meyler suggested this week, media-led.

Tucked away

O'Neill, Roy Keane and the coaching staff are happy to have the contracts tucked away before a ball is kicked at home to Moldova.

"I'm delighted, I've enjoyed it immensely. International football was something I didn't know whether you'd get used to or not but obviously with qualification for the Euros made it all worthwhile and we're still in this competition also," O'Neill said last night when the contract extension was confirmed.

"We've some younger players coming through who will take over from the older players who will retire naturally from old age as much as anything else so it's exciting times."

And why wouldn't they be ecstatic? Failure to progress out of the group would leave the Republic's players and supporters without a meaningful game for 11 months. Nothing to relish but a couple of friendlies, in November and March at first, one of them bound to be against Oman.

For each one of those months, O'Neill and his staff will be paid, and well-paid, as FAI employees on new contracts. That's whether the team have delivered the two wins against Moldova and Wales, have won a tough play-off and are heading to Russia in June, or whether the side has flopped (either in Dublin or Cardiff) and has finished third.

It's hard to figure out the FAI's logic in agreeing the new contract so early. Certainly, giving the boss a new deal before the double-header makes O'Neill's life easier. Heading into the final games of the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, Brian Kerr was plagued with questions about his own future, adding to the pressure and this new deal for O'Neill deletes all those questions ahead of the Wales game.

It makes life easier for the FAI, who do not have the stomach for a lengthy, time-consuming and costly hunt for a new manager, especially as there are no obvious candidates for succession sitting in a waiting room.

You'd wonder if those in power in the FAI have considered recent history. Kerr was very harshly treated when his team ran out of steam in 2005, booted out the door after years of service to the association at all levels, Kerr never allowed to darken the door of the FAI again.

But it was different with Mick McCarthy, given a new deal before the 2002 World Cup finals had started, and with Trapattoni, handed a contract extension before Euro 2012 started, a deal that looked very foolish in the wake of the team's pallid display in Poland.

McCarthy later admitted that the biggest mistake in his coaching career was staying on with Ireland after the 2002 World Cup. It was a dreadful mistake by the FAI not to spot that a rot had set in with Trapattoni.

Handing out a new deal now is the easy option, for the FAI and for O'Neill. There is of course the danger of hesitation: the FAI hold off on a new deal, O'Neill leads the side to Russia, the team excel, O'Neill is headhunted by a bigger power in club football, and Ireland are left rudderless, without a manager ahead of the tricky new qualifying system for Euro 2020.

Forward planning is admirable but not always successful. Steve Staunton's four-year plan was over within 18 months; McCarthy and Trapattoni didn't see out their own (hastily-awarded) contracts.

Football is about results. Should Ireland deliver the wins in the next two games, make the play-offs and either qualify or go out with heads held high, then O'Neill and his staff would deserve another crack at it.

Winning at home to Moldova tonight is expected, and failure to win should really call this new contract into question. Moldova are the sixth-worst team in Europe, at a low ebb and missing players so dropping points would be unacceptable.

The Staunton era ended with a draw in a home qualifier which Ireland were expected to win (Cyprus) and was followed by a draw in Cardiff.

Football is a results business but results, not taking the easy option, should dictate the shape of the Irish team.

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