Sunday 24 February 2019

O'Neill's Stoke talks may leave long-term hurt

Questions over Irish boss' future as he's set to miss out on Potters

Martin O’Neill reacts during last November’s 5-1 World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill reacts during last November’s 5-1 World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

If Martin O'Neill does indeed board a plane to Switzerland on Tuesday week to attend the draw for the Nations League, we can only imagine the mental baggage he will carry with him.

After the events of the last few days, the forecast can only be for cloud and rain, certainly hard to see any sun on the horizon.

No matter what happens between now and Monday night, when Stoke City take on Manchester United with a new manager in the dugout, likely to be Espanyol boss Quique Sanchez Flores as the position is his if he wants it, damage has been done to O'Neill's status here.

O'Neill is, technically, out of contract with the FAI as his last deal effectively ended when the final whistle blew at the end of that 5-1 hammering by Denmark. People in his position work off a rolling contract, though, and we can only assume that O'Neill and his coaching staff have been paid by the FAI in the weeks since the end of our World Cup dream, the new contract offered and agreed by his employers back in October still unsigned.

O'Neill's dalliance with Stoke has left him exposed back in Ireland, though. As a free agent, he is of course free to speak to clubs about job vacancies.

And at 65, the Stoke job is probably O'Neill's last chance to manage in the Premier League, a place where he says he has unfinished business.

Albeit well paid with Ireland, he could earn five times as much by managing a team like Stoke.

No one would deny O'Neill the chance to leave this job and take up a role he had longed for, say Celtic. But growing up in Co. Derry, it was hardly the boyhood dream of Martin O'Neill to manage Stoke City.

Breaking up with the FAI will not be hard. O'Neill is free to walk into the post there, take Roy Keane with him, and face up to Jose Mourinho on Monday night, battles like that a lot more attractive that a deathly-dull nine-month wait for the next international game of any consequence.

The bigger problem for O'Neill is not landing the Stoke job.

Going for a job you think is an improvement on your current one is nothing to be ashamed of in any walk of life.

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane
Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane

But going for that job, not getting it, and then trotting back to your original employer is a different matter. Hence the tension on that flight to Switzerland on Tuesday week, presuming O'Neill is on board with the FAI and on board the flight.

The FAI showed O'Neill loyalty by offering that new contract back in October, when the manager's future was on the line. His employers wanted him to stay on no matter what happened in Cardiff, a great comfort to O'Neill ahead of that Wales game.

If Ireland had lost to Wales, and been knocked out of the World Cup race before the playoffs, would the FAI have taken the contract offer of the table? Would O'Neill have walked away from a contract worth €2m? It would have been signed right away.

O'Neill has a loyalty to himself, like any individual, and a contract with Stoke, even a short-term one, would make him financially secure for life.

But there's also a loyalty to Ireland. Should the Stoke job go to Quique Sanchez Flores, as predicted, Irish football will know that, for the rest of O'Neill's reign, we were second best. If Flores tells Stoke today that he's ready to leave his Barcelona base and take the job with City, then O'Neill reverts to his role here.

Managing the national team of the Republic of Ireland should not be a consolation prize.


The contenders . . .

Mick McCarthy

Mick McCarthy once said that one of the biggest mistakes of his career was failing to sense the wind, and staying on as Ireland boss after the 2002 World Cup instead of walking away.

Certain Ipswich Town fans wonder if McCarthy should sense the mood in Anglia and move on from his job there, before things get too nasty.

Ipswich are far from a basket case, safely in mid-table in the Championship and Sunderland fans would love to trade places, but Town’s recent form is poor, a draw and four defeats in the last five, and they made a pretty tame exit in the FA Cup.

Realists know that McCarthy is not to blame for the team’s failure in the promotion race, as Ipswich are a miserly club who refuse to spend. Should he leave Ipswich, McCarthy would have many admirers in Ireland. Still only 58, his nose for scouting players is good and style of play would be an improvement on recent times. ODDS: 3/1


Neil Lennon

A man from Northern Ireland who has a close association with Leicester and Celtic, has managed in the SPL and pulled off results with his club in Europe.

Do we need another one of them, should Martin O’Neill leave his post with the Republic of Ireland? If so, Neil Lennon is a man who could come into the frame for the job here.

Given his regular TV work for stations here, Lennon spends almost as much time in Dublin over the season as O’Neill does, and Lennon is familiar with the game here.

His managerial experience in England, with Bolton, didn’t end well but the financial chaos there means little blame comes Lennon’s way. He has done well in the SPL with Hibs and, on limited resources, has the team only five points behind Rangers.

Money should not be a hindrance if the FAI wanted him as Lennon’s salary with Hibs is around £200,000, well below O’Neill’s seven-figure package. If the FAI do want him, he won’t be hard to get. ODDS: 12/1


Stephen Kenny

If this was Denmark, Stephen Kenny would be at least in the top three to take over as national team boss if the job is vacant. But we live in Ireland, not Denmark and don’t do things that way, so Kenny is unlikely to be given a real chance of landing the job by the FAI.

A pity as he should be considered at least. Whatever about winning domestic trophies - and three successive leagues is an achievement anywhere (outside of Scotland) - his results in Europe stand out.

Beating BATE Borisov with Dundalk was very impressive but Kenny’s approach to big games, against big opponents, was refreshing, refusing to play the ‘little old us’ card against the likes of Zenit, he sent out his teams not just to get a result but to play football.  When a legendary figure like Mircea Lucescu (Zenit’s boss) is impressed by Kenny, why should we ignore him just because he’s Irish? ODDS: 12/1


Brian McDermott

Brian McDermott is a man who knows how quickly a manager can storm to the top but also fade away with the same pace.

As recently as 2012, McDermott was in vogue, having led Reading to the top flight, was soon manager of the month in the Premier League. Sacked (harshly) by Reading, he had troubled times with Leeds and again in a second spell with Reading. Out of management for 18 months, McDermott (56) is no longer linked with Premier League jobs but he could come into the frame for the Ireland post. He has a good insight in the game here at all levels, and has the respect of players like one-time protege Shane Long.

And he has a strong Irish connection. “My mum is from Clare and my dad is from Sligo,” he has said, regretting the fact that he played for England at youth level. “Since then it has been a goal of mine to manage Ireland.”

An outside bet, but not a bad option to have.

ODDS: 33/1

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