Analysis: Walking away gracefully may protect Martin O’Neill’s legacy

Writing before news of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane's departure broke this morning, Kieran Shannnon, reflected on why walking away from the Ireland job would utimately prove a good move for the Derry man.

AS Martin O’Neill likes telling Nottingham Forest stories so much, he might enjoy and could certainly take something from hearing another Forest yarn — or at least one told by a fellow former City Ground great.

A few years ago Stuart Pearce was a guest on Sky Sports’ The Fantasy Football Club on which some current but mostly retired pros select and explain the best 11 players they’ve played with.

O’Neill would be glad to know that Pearce picked a number of Forest legends, including his old colleague Peter Shilton, the goalkeeper with whom he won those two European Cups that he once reminded Fabio Cannavaro and Patrick Vieira of on an ITV World Cup panel.

When it came to selecting the final spot in his midfield though, Pearce surprisingly chose to overlook O’Neill’s current assistant, Roy Keane, to accommodate a far less obvious and familiar name.

Playing just in front of Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne and John Barnes, he had an Ali Benarbia, who he lined out alongside for Manchester City in his last season as a player.

“Incredible,” gushed Pearce while penning the Algerian’s name with his black marker.

Benarbia would have been 32 when he joined City after previously winning league titles with Monaco and Bordeaux and captaining PSG in the Champions League. He was sensational in his first season with City, catapulting them straight out of the Championship, but it was the man as much as the player that most left an impression on Pearce.

In the lead up to Pearce’s final game, Benarbia had read that he had scored 99 goals in his career.

“I’ll get your [100th] goal for you, Stu,” he promised.

Sure enough, with City already 4-1 up, he weaved into the box, put his foot on the ball, chipped it off a defender’s hand and pleaded for handball. The ref gave the penalty and Benarbia ran over to hand the ball to Pearce.

Pearce missed the penalty but for him Benarbia’s gesture was worth more than a 100th goal.

The real mark of the man though for Pearce was when City went up to the Premier League.

Pearce had been co-opted onto Keegan’s coaching staff and observed how Benarbia’s performance level in his first season in the top flight had been merely middling. “His legs were slowing up.”

Then during the following pre-season they played Mansfield Town and Benarbia had, in Pearce’s estimation, “an absolute stinker”.

The following day Pearce, Keegan and the rest of the coaching staff were in the manager’s office, discussing among other things Benarbia who still had a year remaining on his contract, when there was a knock on the door.

It was Benarbia, who proceeded to go round and shake every one of them by the hand. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. It’s time for me to go.

“He just ripped up his contract and went,” recalled Pearce.

How many footballers would realise that their time was up?

“What a great man.”

Just like the CV Benarbia had compiled before he came to City, Martin O’Neill had a stellar managerial career prior to teaming up with Ireland.

And just as Benarbia was scintillating for City in his first season, O’Neill was terrific in his first term for Ireland; beating Germany and Bosnia to qualify for Euro 2016, beating Italy at Euro 2016.

In his second term there was some slippage, just as there was in Benarbia’s second season at City; while still being somewhat respectable, his managerial legs were slowing up.

This year has been something the equivalent of a pre-season, albeit the Nations League carries a bit more weight than your standard string of friendlies; the real stuff, the season proper, hasn’t kicked off yet.

But what the past 12 months have confirmed is that whatever benefit of the doubt O’Neill was entitled to has now evaporated.

Like Benarbia discovered at Mansfield, his zip is gone and it isn’t coming back.

In all the commentary and conjecture there has been about O’Neill’s position these past few months, everyone has been working off the assumption that his departure would involve the FAI having to dish out a payoff it can barely afford.

That O’Neill won’t go cheaply. That he’ll have go either kicking and screaming or skipping and laughing all the way to the bank.

The thought of him doing a Benarbia doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of us, let alone to him.

Football people, or people in football, just aren’t conditioned to even countenance such a possibility.

Richard Scudamore gets handsomely paid for being chief executive of the Premier League and upon his departure won’t cringe at or decline the £5m golden handshake the clubs are reportedly rounding up for him.

The self-entitlement is also pervasive within the FAI. It would be quite the leap for Martin O’Neill to walk in and offer his resignation to John Delaney when the same chief executive has an extravagant salary himself, well above higher-performing peers but one he’s defended.

Like O’Neill, he’s declared that he’s good, that like Ginola, he’s worth it.

But where Irish football finds itself right now, questions have to be asked about both of them.

Delaney has been in his position for 13 years now; when his current contract expires in 2020, would Irish football be any worse off for giving someone else a shot at the job?

That a little bit of new blood and fresh thinking wouldn’t go amiss, instead of him seeking, as has been reported, an extension that would go right up to 2025.

O’Neill is now the third consecutive manager that Delaney gave one contract too many to.

There’s something tragic, even Lear-esque, about O’Neill constantly defending his record and justifying his retention as Irish manager.

Not that long ago, he wasn’t just “good”, he was great, even for a period with Ireland.

He’s not great for Ireland now. He’s not even good for them. Because as they say, he who stops getting better stops being good.

Why is he clinging so desperately to the job? Does he need the money that bad? You would hope at his age and with all he has earned that is not the case.

Does he have nothing else to do? Again, you would hope that is not the case.

Or does he feel his resignation would stain his legacy, that he would lose face?

If anything, walking away now, like a Benarbia, would protect his legacy and reputation, even enhance it.

While Shane Long against Germany and Robbie Brady against Italy and James McClean in Cardiff are still golden and not distant memories, rather than our predominant reflex being to curse upon mention of his name and bemoan another football man who didn’t accept when his time was up.

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