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Tuesday 23 October 2018

Repair work required

O'Neill commits to FAI and rejects Stoke offer but he has job now to get public back on side

Martin O'Neill now wants to stay in his role as Ireland manager after reportedly turning down the chance to manage Stoke City
Martin O'Neill now wants to stay in his role as Ireland manager after reportedly turning down the chance to manage Stoke City

And so it turns out that Martin O'Neill and the FAI are not breaking up.

But when it comes to the manager of the national team and the Irish soccer public, making up will be so very hard to do.

No matter how hard O'Neill's media spinners, and his employers in the FAI, try to shape things in the coming days, this last week has been a very, very bad one for the manager of the Republic of Ireland and the FAI and O'Neill will need to explain to the public what happened in the last week.

One of the most distressing aspects of the last week was the 'meh' factor surrounding O'Neill's possible exit to Stoke, before it was made known last night that he was turning the job down to stay on with Ireland.

Loss

From the Irish soccer public, there was no shedding of tears at the potential loss (with no compensation, thanks to the FAI's inability to get O'Neill's signature on the contract which was agreed almost four months ago) of the national team boss.

No demonstrations outside FAI offices from loyal fans upset at the idea of O'Neill leaving.

And on the other side, there was no great clamour for O'Neill to go and leave us all alone. No one was demanding his head on a plate.

It's as if Irish Football Inc had been broken by the nature of the World Cup loss to Denmark. After more than four years of his managership, the feeling about O'Neill was that Lisa Simpson-esque 'meh'.

We need to care more about who manages our national team but years of uninspiring football under O'Neill, and the Danish debacle, have left us numb. And O'Neill needs to care more about the job that he has, instead of trying to get away for a better-paid one.

It was reported by someone close to O'Neill that the 65-year-old was "genuinely excited" about building a new team for Ireland over the next year.

As he scurried past a batch of camera crews, and then a gaggle of newspaper reporters, while attending the Soccer Writers Association of Ireland dinner in Dublin on Friday night, O'Neill looked anything but "genuinely excited".

It's the interest from Stoke which seems to have sparked genuine excitement from O'Neill, not the prospect of scouting for players at Rotherham, Fleetwood and Oldham for the next few months.

Was he really "genuinely excited" a week ago and only spoke to Stoke for something to do?

The Ireland manager has a lot of bridges to build. The Irish soccer community deserved better than events of the last week and the mood at the next home international (no home friendlies currently scheduled but there will be at least one game in Dublin between now and June) could be frosty. O'Neill won't be booed, but he won't be acclaimed either.

That's something ex-international Stephen Hunt touched on in his Sunday Independent column. "He might be able to convince the FAI and the players that he is still fully committed to the cause, but winning the hearts and minds of the supporters might be more difficult," said Hunt.

O'Neill needs to do some serious work to repair relations with the Irish soccer media, after his behaviour in Dublin last Friday, surrounding his on/off attendance at the SWAI awards, which can only be described as bad-mannered and rude.

Comfort

There are some pluses for O'Neill to consider: the return from injury of Seamus Coleman, the emergence of Declan Rice, even small crumbs of comfort from the fact that James McCarthy appears to have not only his fitness back but also has the confidence of his club manager at Everton, and some of Ireland's younger players (Connor Ronan, Harry Charsley) have been given a stage to play on lately, albeit on loan in the lower leagues.

And, erm, that's it, really. Outside of Rice, there's no 'Irish Ben Woodburn' on the horizon.

No easy task for O'Neill: just five Irish players started for their clubs in the Premier League over the weekend, no Irish involvement in the Premier League's games yesterday or tonight. In the two Premier League matches played yesterday, and the one tonight at Old Trafford, not one Irish-eligible player kicked a ball.

And the manager? More a case of damaged goods than excited. Genuinely.

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