Martin O’Neill's contract should be bottom of Ireland's agenda

Whether Martin O’Neill is departing for Goodison or Roy for Parkhead should be the bottom of the agenda right now. Our focus should be on the Euros before us and not the World Cup ahead...
Martin O’Neill's contract should be bottom of Ireland's agenda

Another week, another Martin O’Neill press conference, another round of will he or won’t he sign a new Ireland contract before or after the European Championships.

Actually, in so far as you can ever be certain of anything with the somewhat enigmatic and even mercurial Derryman, it seems we will have to wait until the other side of the tournament before we get a definitive answer.

O’Neill might tend to hedge various of his pronouncements with pesky qualifiers — “at this moment in time”, “don’t hold me to that”, “let’s wait and see” are a few of the more familiar ones to frustrated hacks — but when he sat down with daily print journalists for some in-depth chat a few weeks back, there was a strong sense that he was being as honest and open as he could he could be on the subject of his Ireland future.

Although, presumably out of fellow feeling and professional courtesy, he never mentioned his predecessor by name, this was the conversation in which he first raised the spectre of Giovanni Trapattoni having gone from hero to zero in the time it took the euphoria of Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2012 to be rudely dispersed in Poland by Croatia, Spain, and Italy.

In other words, O’Neill might have fulfilled the job spec by leading Ireland to France but, now that the biggest test to date for him and his team is almost upon them, he has grown acutely conscious not just that the work isn’t complete but that, should the finals go pear-shaped again, everything that has been achieved up to now might be undone, with all that would imply, in the popular mind, for the credibility of the current management team.

Which is true: I don’t recall the faithful consoling themselves with memories of Estonia being thumped 4-0 in the play-offs after Spain had confirmed Ireland’s exit from the finals by the same scoreline and a much greater gulf in class.

When his contract was raised yet again at Thursday’s unveiling of his squad for the friendly against the Netherlands, O’Neill did little more than refer the questioner to his previous comments while, when pressed on a possible Keane-Celtic link, gave what was probably the only answer he really could under the circumstances, saying that, yes, it would be quite a good fit.

I don’t doubt he believes that but, really, what else would anyone expect him to say? “Roy at Celtic would be a disaster. The man is made to be an assistant manager. He should count his blessing his gets to work with moi.” No, I think not.

But here’s the real point. Whether Martin O’Neill ends up at Everton or Roy Keane departs for Glasgow — or whether they go elsewhere or even choose to remain as the Irish tag team for the World Cup campaign – has no bearing whatsoever on the only issue that matters right now: how Ireland will get on against Sweden, Belgium, and Italy in a few weeks’ time.

True, the FAI might have liked to have the manager’s contract set in stone by this stage, not least because should Ireland happen to do well at the Euros and O’Neill subsequently be lured back to club football in England, the powers that be will once again be held accountable, charged with negligence and generally portrayed as the hapless villains of the piece. (In other words, pretty much the same rap sheet which was held against them for doing precisely the opposite in tying Trap down to a new contract before Euro 2012).

In any event, I’m not sure quite what they’re supposed to do short of forging the Derryman’s name on the dotted line. If he wants to keep his options open, he wants to keep his options open — and he’s perfectly entitled to do that. Perhaps his most telling line on the whole subject came recently when, having noted that, yes, he could understand how it would be nice to have everything “solid” ahead of France, he added with a small smile: “It’s just that John (Delaney) comes up against someone who is not… solid.”

But, again, all that surely matters as summer rolls in is that Martin O’Neill is solid when it comes to the multi-faceted task of giving his team the best possible chance of progressing at the Euros. And, in that crucial context, I fail to see how uncertainty about his position after June can in any way impinge on the performances of the players he chooses to send across the white line in Paris, Bordeaux, and Lille – and maybe beyond.

Of various ex-internationals and other football people I’ve spoken to in recent weeks, only Kevin Kilbane came up with a way in which he thought the unresolved contract issue could have a negative effect on preparations for France.

“You know what it’s like,” he said. “The players will come in and they’ll get asked about it in the lead-up to the Euros. What will it be like if Martin stays or goes? They’re questions that they can’t answer and it’s a difficult position for them to be in. I don’t think it will impact on performances. I just think it will make for awkwardness for the players. So I’d prefer it was done and dusted now.”

Well, with all due respect to Kevin and his experience of being inside the dressing room at a big tournament, I genuinely fail to see how we in the media bleating on about this should amount to anything more than mildly irritating background noise for footballers facing some of the biggest games of their lives.

And though I realise I’m putting lots of speculative pieces and tantalising headlines in jeopardy by saying this, the truth is that if I found myself in the players’ shoes, that’s almost exactly the prepared script I’d have ready for my media chums: “Listen, we’re about to play three of the biggest games of our lives. That’s all we’re focused on and, from the manager to the players to the kitman, we’re all pulling together with only one goal in mind: to go as far as we can and do the country proud in this tournament.”

At which point, reverting to my lowly role as a hack desperate to fill some column inches, I suspect the best I could manage by way of a supplementary question would be something along the lines of ‘ah, yeah, but…’, which, let’s face it, would be unlikely to make them fold like a cheap deckchair nor do much to advance my claims for a Pulitzer.

Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that, barring exceptional catastrophe, international managers should be guaranteed two campaigns to give them sufficient time to implement their ideas and arrive at their best team. So even if Ireland had ultimately failed to qualify for France, I’d still have liked to see O’Neill and Keane given a shot at the World Cup.

But while their success in qualifying the team should, all things being equal, really make that a formality, it’s not now an issue which I would consider as being anywhere close to top of the agenda — not when the Euros themselves are just a matter of weeks away.

Right now, the dotted line is not the bottom line. If ever there’s a time for short-term thinking, this is it.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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