Martin O’Neill has never been one to decide today what can wait until tomorrow, but the Republic of Ireland manager has stretched that tendency to procrastinate to spectacular lengths as the European Championship looms into view.
Uefa’s deadline for squad lists was less than an hour away when he finally emailed his 23-man list from Turner’s Cross last Tuesday week and, with the team departing today for France, news dropped yesterday evening that the Derryman was staying on through to 2018.
Talk about last minute.
The timing was unexpected and the delivery, via the FAI’s Twitter handle, strangely low-key, but the news removes the last major distraction surrounding a squad that can now settle in at its Versailles base with its long-term security seemingly secured and the immediate future fully in focus.
“I am delighted that John Delaney and the FAI Board have extended our contracts for the World Cup campaign,” O’Neill said.
“It has been an absolute privilege to have been in charge of the Republic of Ireland national team these last 30 months, and we go to France in good spirits with a strong desire to do well in the next few weeks.
“The players have done brilliantly in the campaign so far and they are ready for the big challenges ahead.”
Yesterday’s development also counters the sour narrative of recent days, one that involved O’Neill’s verbal gaffe at the Cork Opera House last week and Keane’s castigating of some fringe players following the pedestrian 2-1 defeat to Belarus the night before.
With Keane, Steve Guppy, Seamus McDonagh and Steve Walford also putting pen to paper for the same period of time, the Republic will now be guided through the next World Cup campaign by the same group of men who secured qualification for Euro 2016 through the play-offs.
Ireland’s isn’t the most daunting of groups given the presence of Wales as top seeds come September, but with only 13 teams making the finals as opposed to 23 for the Euros, the team’s graph will need to continue improving if Russia is to welcome the boys in green.
For now, the signatures bring to an end six months of speculation over the immediate intentions of the ‘MONKEANO’ double act although, this being football, that is not to say that O’Neill and Keane will still be pursuing their current jobs when the terms run out.
O’Neill was linked with a return to Leicester City last summer before they plumped for Claudio Ranieri, while Keane rejected an offer from Celtic before they appointed Ronny Deila and was mentioned as a candidate again after the Norwegian moved on.
Both have expressed an interest in returning to the club game at some point and their stock is up.
O’Neill said recently that his current role wouldn’t be his last and he revealed on Monday that he ignored three offers from clubs in the UK when taking up the role as Irish manager.
It is one that he has declared repeatedly to be a “privilege” and, while Keane has been similarly effusive about his role,
O’Neill has been consistent in his contention that his high-profile lieutenant would be a superb appointment for outfits in the UK. “He would be great at it,” O’Neill said last December.
“He has been great, I have said that umpteen times, but he is young and he has had a taste for it and he will eventually want to go and make his own decisions.”
There is also the unpalatable possibility that both men could outstay their welcome and they would hardly be the first to ink new deals before a major tournament only to find themselves seeking new employment sooner than expected.
Giovanni Trapattoni took the Republic to the European Championship in 2012 with the security of an extended contract signed the November before in his back pocket and yet the Italian stood down “by mutual consent” in September of 2013 with a year of that deal still to run.
Rewind back to 2002 and Mick McCarthy was managing Ireland at the World Cup having extended his employment with the FAI four months earlier up to as far as 2004.
McCarthy ultimately lasted less than six months after the tournament.
Football isn’t alone in such Irish precedents.
Both Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney found out the hard way that contracts are no guarantors of gainful employment despite signing new deals with the IRFU before World Cups, in 2007 and 2011 respectively.
Football Association of Ireland CEO Delaney observed in a statement — one that failed to say whether Denis O’Brien would again be contributing to the salaries — that O’Neill has helped develop emerging talents such as Robbie Brady, Shane Duffy and Callum O’Dowda whilst securing a place at the Euros.
It is a strange list given Duffy has just three caps and O’Dowd 15 minutes of international football to his name.
But it is what happens here and now, in France, that will frame the landscape for O’Neill and Keane’s next two years in charge and whether they are likely to stay that long.
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