O'Neill Stoke's the FA-Ire
Martin O’Neill’s recent flirtation with Stoke City unearthed more deep-rooted issues than he, the FAI, or the Irish media had bargained for. And watching events unfold over the past 5 days, one can only shrug at the fact that what’s bad on the pitch, is even worse off it. We’ve documented our 7 takeaways below.
1. Irish job will always be as secure as the next premier league job offer
Until recently, it would be very hard to question the commitment of Martin O’Neill or Roy Keane to their Irish posts. Whilst some may argue they didn’t do enough scouting, attend enough League of Ireland games, or play nice enough football, the reality is that none of these are part of the current FAI mandate. Their jobs are to win, and qualify us for (the lucrative) international football tournaments. Succeeding on first ask, they fell at the final hurdle in qualification for Russia 2018. A failure that came more through poor decisions though, rather than half-arsed ones.
While we didn’t expect O’Neill would walk to another job in the middle of a campaign, never did we feel naïve enough to assume their commitment was impenetrable – and if it’s to be believed that O’Neill’s contract has an active clause allowing him to speak to Premier League clubs, neither too did the FAI. This has always been a possibility - it’s par for the course. And with the ever-growing ruthless way teams cull managers these days, you have to accept it’s also fair game. Neither O’Neill, or Keane, should be criticised for listening to offers, particularly so when we’re at the very start of a new cycle.
Here’s hoping the FAI are as smart behind the scenes, and are also planning for a (likely) rainy day.
2. O’Neill turned down offers others would have taken, but clearly a longer term deal would have seen him jump at either Everton or Stoke
O'Neill, while in the employment (contract or no contract) of the FAI, has now spoken to and rejected Everton and Stoke. Both offers came with the catch of a contract until only June 2019 - ostensibly 6 months (or 4 in Stoke's case) to ensure safety in the Premier League, with the opt out (in the club's eyes) of a 12 month severance payment at the end.
O'Neill was clearly not part of either clubs' long term vision, a fact which essentially led to him rejecting both offers. The idea that O'Neill has now joined that well employed cabal of managers seen as Premier League saavy, that are called upon to steer ships through choppy waters like Pardew, Allardyce and Pulis may well have irked him. But let us be in no doubt, a long term eh 'project' at a respectable Premier League club would most likely have led to him ditching his job at the FAI.
3. The players don’t care about all this noise
Many punters have said that O'Neill's job is now untenable, that he will have lost the trust of the dressing room. However, it's difficult to buy into that idea. The Irish players are well used to managerial change at club level. Within professional football the movement of players and managers has never been more fluid.
Stephen Hunt wrote in the Sunday Independent:
"the players won't be bothered by what's gone on. Football is a selfish game at times like this and you just deal with it and get on with it. You're only interested in the manager and how it affects you. If Martin is the manager, will he play me? Can I play well for him".
Under previous managers, there were often murmurs in the press referring to anonymous disenchanted players. This hasn't happened under the current management team. On Sunday Jonny Walters took the (obviously) calculated opportunity to express his opinion of O'Neill:
"If I was Stoke I’d be desperately trying to sign him up...I can’t speak highly enough about him".
How the general public and fans react to this whole escapade is another matter...
4. Irish media are quick to criticise O’Neill and the FAI but they need to also take a look at themselves
You can count on one hand the amount of really excellent, inside, football journalism that has come from the Irish media since Saipan. Back then, Mick McCarthy held close a few strategic ‘friends’ within the media circles, and they, in turn, stood by him thick and thin. Over rounds of golf they both scratched each-others backs; journalists knowing they’d have an exclusive, McCarthy knowing thousands would be reading positive news about him the next day. This, you imagine, is the extreme version of how both parties should go about their work - but provided journalistic freedom remains intact, having a direct line to the manager (or at least those in the know around him), can only benefit both parties - and in turn, the fans.
This week, however, proved that the relationship between the current management and the Irish media is as bad, if not worse, than it’s ever been. Most of the major football journalists sat in the shadow of their UK (Telegraph) and Spanish (Guillem Balague, Marca, Sport) counterparts, waiting for further info to come out so they could hash out their own version of it and update the nation. O’Neill is well known to have a cold-shoulder for the media, and it’s certain that he has a big part to play here also, but the fact that not one journalist in the country has a "I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine" type relationship with him – akin to say what Luke Edwards at the Telegraph has - is a sorry indictment of the situation.
A few people point to this being difficult for Irish writers to cover as it’s really a Premier League story, but that falls short of the mark in our opinion. Luke Edwards, as recently as last night, cited specific clauses in Martin O’Neill’s contract that no one on these shores had even heard of. Whatever the state of the FAI, O’Neill’s playing style, and the circus this week - aside from a select few - it’s clear the media environment around Irish football is also contributing to the smell.
5. Calls for 'regime change' have gained momentum
The aesthetic quality of O'Neill's Ireland and his interactions with reporters has irritated large sections of the Irish public, arguably to a lesser extent the match-going fans, for a number of months. The Denmark Disaster and the manager's Stoke City dalliance has greatly increased the numbers of those looking for managerial change.
For the past 30 years the demise of all of our managers has began in this manner. The RTE Panel, the written press, the man on the street/couch/barstool and eventually those in the stadium.
Many would argue this is because the manager's have always stayed on one campaign too long. Brian Kerr was arguably the only one who didn't receive the full ferocity of this treatment - as he was 'terminated' much earlier in the process.
It took one home qualifier after the 'highs' of Korea and Japan for Lansdowne to descend into the boo's that ended Mick McCarthy's 6 years as Ireland manager. O'Neill's (soon to be signed) contract might not count for much if he endures a similar run of form, despite the scepticism around the new Nations League.
6. O’Neill needs to make a statement
O’Neill spoke very little after the loss to Denmark, and has completely disappeared from the media spotlight since. He’s said to be extremely disappointed with the reaction of the nation after the humiliating defeat in Dublin – particularly by ex-internationals – even though he knew he would face some criticism. Whilst he brought many great nights to Irish football since he took over, he’s not untouchable. And the lack of any discussion since, alongside the pending contract that still remains unsigned, and the fact that he’s actively speaking to other employers, means he owes the nation some reassurances that he’s up for the next phase of this job. It may not be the top job in the world for him, but it’s the pinnacle of our footballing interests, and as O’Neill told Stoke this weekend: it’s no good being an after-thought, or a short-term option. We need full buy-in.
It’s been over 2 months since the Danish debacle. And if the suits and O’Neill haven’t even got around to putting pen to paper, God only knows what has been done to plan for the next cycle of Irish football. The holiday is over. Let’s see a plan - in action.