The Football Association of Ireland could be about to lose Martin O’Neill from their grasp after the Ireland manager last night held what was understood to be a productive meeting with Stoke City about their managerial vacancy.
Potters chairman Peter Coates and his board made the Derryman their preferred target to replace the sacked Mark Hughes and negotiations in the midlands are due to continue today.
It is believed O’Neill is prepared to resign from his Ireland post rather adopt the job-sharing arrangement that had been floated as a compromise to appease the FAI.
Former Irish international Kevin Kilbane gave his opinion about what may have a bearing on O'Neill's decision to move on.
Kilbane said: "The criticism he received after that Denmark game, that's certainly got to play on his mind.
"If he gets a big job, it's still a big job, a Premier League job, Stoke coming in for him the way that they are, you think he's probably the sort of manager that could go in there and get that short-term for them."
While the Stoke board are disposed to widening their search to include the likes of Espanyol boss Quique Sanchez Flores, the team’s position in the relegation zone means a swift appointment is desirable.
O’Neill has never hid his interest in returning to the Premier League circuit and it is believed he has conveyed that stance to the Stoke hierarchy.
He deems the club’s traditional values to his liking, unlike several other Premier League outfits controlled by foreign ownership.
Stoke native Coates is a self-made billionaire, restricting his board to just four colleagues, including his son John and Stoke and England legend Gordon Banks, and has opted against following the modern model of appointing a director of football to oversee transfer activity.
Hughes was just the second manager in the hotseat after Tony Pulis since Coates bought the club in 2005 for the second time and their reputation for displaying patience with managers was demonstrated by not firing the Welshman until Saturday’s humiliating FA Cup Third Round defeat at fourth-tier Coventry City.
Given the requirement to regain stability at the Bet365 Stadium following a disastrous 2017, sources claim Stoke would want O’Neill on an undivided basis.
Ireland may have only friendlies scheduled until the Uefa Nations Cup kicks off in September, yet the financial risk of losing their Premier League status means the new manager’s focus cannot be distracted by extra-curricular activities.
With that matter seemingly clarified, Stoke are also encouraged by the likelihood of O’Neill transporting his backroom team — including assistant boss Roy Keane — to Staffordshire.
Former Ireland captain Keane would be tipped to compete for the post, were O’Neill to quit, but the indications are that he’s also eager to make a Premier League comeback and could deem this a better route into an eventual managerial post in the UK.
Other loyal members of his coaching staff, including Steve Guppy, Steve Walford, and goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh, are also set to follow O’Neill from the Ireland camp into the new adventure.
All of which leaves the FAI with a sense of regret at not nailing down O’Neill to the contract extension he verbally agreed to last October.
While the FAI confirmed yesterday that had received no approach from Stoke about talking to O’Neill, the Premier League club were entitled to go directly to the Derryman without consulting Abbotstown as nothing was signed and sealed.
Still, it would be a surprise if the manager didn’t keep Delaney informed of yesterday’s developments.
O’Neill’s decision in 2016 to delay by five months the signing of his new contract suggested the Derry man had a penchant for working to his pace but this latest prevarication always carried the threat of blowing up in the face of his employers.
A hint of such an embarrassing scenario unfolding was there for all to see when, just five weeks after appearing in an official FAI video confirming the agreement to remain in charge, it had been revised downwards to “I’ll need to have a real think about that”.
Those comments were aired in the immediate aftermath of Ireland’s hammering at the hands of Denmark in the November World Cup play-off.
Despite O’Neill taking time off for a holiday to reflect, fears of him walking away were allayed by his visit to the FAI headquarters before Christmas to plan for 2018 and attend the association’s Christmas party.
Still, the contract remained unsigned and there was a degree of pantomime to the recent assertion by FAI treasurer Eddie Murray that they expected O’Neill to rubberstamp the deal. At the start of 2018, these latest developments indicate the only contract poised to be inked by O’Neill are those belonging to Stoke City.
- Irish Examiner and Digital desk