O’Neill and FAI must now clear the air

Pundits, journalists, supporters, and former players and managers: Plenty of people have had plenty to say about Martin O’Neill over the last few days, very little of it favourable.

O’Neill and FAI must now clear the air

Even when Jon Walters bucked the trend by going on the BBC to praise O’Neill, not to bury him, he still found himself winding up in the bizarre position of pointing to his international manager’s achievements with Ireland as a job recommendation for the then vacant post at Stoke City.

That’s Paul Lambert’s now — good luck to him with that — and, though the tortuous events of the past week make one nervous of stating anything at all with absolute certainty, Martin O’Neill is remaining as the Republic of Ireland boss.

But there is still some important talking to be done, on a number of fronts, by the people most centrally involved in a bewildering saga which left even the most fair-minded observers of the Irish football scene feeling they had little option but to speak of the O’Neill-Stoke-FAI triangle in terms of fiasco, embarrassment, and credibility deficit.

O’Neill, it has been indicated, will address the matter when he next speaks to the media and it will be interesting to see if what he has to say — and, indeed, the tone in which he says it — offers a counterpoint to the generally negative impression created so far.

The FAI need to do some upfront talking too. In the past, CEO John Delaney has always insisted the association is not willing to discuss employee contracts but, again, the events of the past week have been so destabilising as to demand as much clarity as possible from the FAI about how binding are the terms of their agreement, verbal or written, with the occupant of the most important position in Irish football.

Which brings us to the most important talking of all: The stuff that’s done on the pitch by the senior international team.

The week’s soap opera would never have had the chance to get to air if Ireland had qualified for this summer’s World Cup.

But searching questions about the sustainability of O’Neill’s position were already high on the agenda in the aftermath of November’s crash-and-burn defeat to Denmark.

For a manager who prides himself on getting results, this almost felt like an end-game in itself, a 5-1 humiliation which left O’Neill visibly shell-shocked, some of his players in tears, the nation deflated and the critics crowing: ‘I told you so’.

In the days of anger and recrimination which followed, there were many keen to highlight the impoverished nature of some of the football played under O’Neill and far fewer minded to recall some of the stellar achievements of his team up to that depressing full stop.

Forgotten, it seemed, but not gone from the record, were those magical and even historic nights for Irish football under his stewardship, as his team drew with world champions Germany away and beat them at home, did the same to Bosnia over the two legs of a European Championship play-off, beat Italy, drew with Sweden and lost narrowly to hosts France at the Euro 2016 finals, and then defeated Austria and Wales away from home in the 2018 World Cup campaign.

But that was all before they saved their worst for last and — through a combination of individual errors, managerial misadventure and brilliant finishing by one great Dane — ignominiously blew their last chance to go to Russia this summer.

Being that there’s a brutal truth in what they say about a manager only being as good as his last game, the Danish pasting meant that O’Neill had a job of work to do to retrieve his credibility as the right man for the Irish job, long before the emergence of the Stoke opportunity generated the strong impression that he might believe there was actually a better job for him elsewhere.

The word put out in the last 24 hours is that O’Neill and Roy Keane are now “bullish” about staying on with Ireland and enthused about the challenge of getting a new-look team to the finals of Euro 2020, which will be part-hosted at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

The problem is that it will be a long time before the management team and the players get to do any talking on the pitch of a kind which might successfully win back hearts and minds.

The inaugural Uefa Nations League doesn’t kick off until September and, even though it offers a back door to the Euro finals, it will still be a hard sell to convince the public of its relevance in advance of the orthodox qualifying campaign which won’t begin until the following March.

In the meantime, there’s a training camp and friendly in Turkey this coming March and a friendly against France in Paris in May — important building blocks from a squad development point of view but hardly enough to consign the current mood of disquiet firmly to the past.

Whether O’Neill or the FAI can do much to dispel it in the short-term remains to be seen.

In the world of top level football which, as we saw this week, can move at dizzying speed, it can be hard at the best of times to promote a sense of stability.

And, as much as the rewards on offer are huge, it can also be an unforgiving place in which, when the going gets tough, players and managers are easily dispensable, so it would be naive not to expect the same people to put their own interests first when they see fit.

But that, of course only makes loyalty an even more desirable and valuable commodity.

O’Neill has plenty of tough work ahead to manage and mentor a squad in transition but his most immediate challenge will be to convince sceptics that his commitment to the Irish job is whole-hearted and the uncertainty of the past week won’t simply blow up again the next time a club expresses interest in Ireland’s manager.

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