If, as recently as the beginning of March this year, it had emerged that the FAI were planning to offer a contract extension to Martin O’Neill, the news would have occasioned little in the way of contentious debate.
A rewarding 2016 had seen his team leave the playing fields of France with heads held high after their appearance in the Euros had provided, in that celebrated victory over Italy in Lille, another memorable night to rank with the win against Germany and the play-off elimination of Bosnia which had so distinguished and decorated a successful first qualification campaign with the Derryman at the helm.
And, by the time the year was out, the picture appeared even rosier, with an historic victory over Austria in Vienna cementing Ireland’s position at the top of World Cup qualifying Group D.
Since the torrid scoreless draw with Wales in Dublin on March 24, however, 2017 has so far given Irish supporters little to cheer about, another two draws and a home defeat by Serbia derailing World Cup momentum to such an the extent that Ireland now find themselves playing qualifying catch-up from third place with just two games remaining.
Against that backdrop, the FAI’s decision to hand O’Neill a contract extension which will see him stay at the helm for the Euro 2020 campaign, clearly represents a leap of faith — and one which is set for an immediate test as Ireland’s 2018 World Cup qualifying fate will be decided at home to Moldova tonight and away to Wales on Monday.
The FAI may have made their offer partly on the basis of O’Neill’s previous impressive achievements as Ireland manager and partly with an eye to the future — there’s an implied belief that he can oversee qualification for the 2020 Euros while developing fresh talent in the ranks — but, for many, it’s what happens over the next four days which will probably define their view on the wisdom or otherwise of the manager being given such a resounding vote of confidence while qualification for Russia still hangs in the balance.
Confirming the news of the deal last night, O’Neill said: “I spoke to John (Delaney) very recently and he said on behalf of the board he would like to extend my contract for another couple of years, obviously with the Euros coming up, and I’ve agreed to do so.”
It’s understood that the new deal — which, as on previous such occasions in O’Neill’s time in the job, has been agreed in principle but not yet signed — also applies to Roy Keane and the rest of the coaching staff.
Speaking earlier in the day, O’Neill had said he thought Keane would be “happy” to stay in the job although he added that, at some point in the future, he expects his assistant to return to management in his own right.
“Roy is obviously his own man and I’ve never shied away from this, that at some stage or other he will manage again,” said O’Neill. “He wants to manage on his own, I think that’s right, and I think that the time with myself and the Ireland squad has been really good for him. I was nearly going to say that he’s mellowed, but he’s certainly not done that at all. In fact, he might have got worse!
“But he’s been excellent for me, I must admit. He’s been excellent in the dressing room as David (Meyler) has mentioned, and I actually think he’s enjoying it here, too. But I think at some stage or other, he will step into management himself.”
Further praising the Corkman’s contribution, O’Neill said: “Roy has been everything I expected of him when I chose him to be my assistant manager. I didn’t pretend to know him that well. We’d worked together on some programmes before that but he’s been everything I expected of him and more. He’s an inspirational figure. On the field he was a hero obviously to a lot of players who are in the squad at this moment and a big figure not just for Irish football but obviously world football. All of those things he continues to bring and I couldn’t ask any more of him.”
Hours before the contract extension agreement was confirmed, O’Neill had first flagged up the development and, in the process, surprised the audience at his pre-match press conference by giving a very candid answer when asked how much he thought the final four days and two games of Ireland’s World Cup Group D campaign would determine his future as Ireland manager.
“I think there’s a willingness on both sides,” he had replied. “I had a conversation with John (Delaney) not so very long ago, John would like me to continue. I’m certainly looking forward to it. I don’t think today is the day to discuss it but I must admit that, with the Euros and the possibility of team qualification and some games in Dublin which would be really exciting. I think there’s exciting times ahead.
“I think, really, we’ve looked at the fact there are some young players coming through. I say young players, I’m talking about mid-20s who will hopefully take on the mantle of the older players as they drop out of the squad, and I think there’s much to look forward to.”
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