O’Neill now on the point of no return

Martin O’Neill’s immediate future, both as manager of Ireland and prospective manager of Stoke City, hangs in the balance as the Premier League club closes in on naming a successor to Mark Hughes.

Even if O’Neill doesn’t land the Stoke job, his interest in the position is already raising questions about the viability of his continuing to manage the Ireland team.

One way or another, this could prove to be a point of no return for the Derryman.

Former Ireland international Richard Dunne last night suggested the current players in the squad would be unsettled by the uncertainty.

“As soon as he gets linked and it looks like he wants the job, as a player you would imagine, ‘well, that’s it, he’s gone now, I wonder who the next manager is?’” he said on Off The Ball.

So for him to then come back, it would be, like, what is going on here?

“It’s a situation the FAI have almost put themselves in. They should have clarified this. Rather than just saying, ‘we’ve shook hands on something’, they should have got the deal signed and then if he wants to go, they get compensation or whatever.

"Nobody knows is he coming or going and it’s a difficult one for him to come back into. If he doesn’t get the other job are the FAI happy to play second fiddle?”

The relegation-threatened Potters have been working a dual strategy over the last 48 hours, with chairman Peter Coates meeting with O’Neill while other senior club officials travelled to Barcelona to speak to Espanyol manager Quique Sanchez Florez.

It soon became clear the Spaniard had become Stoke’s top target, with the club dangling the carrot of a five-year-deal to tempt the former Watford boss back to England.

That left Flores with a big decision to make, with Stoke — who ideally want a new manager installed for Monday night’s Premier League visit to Old Trafford — making it clear a quick answer was required.

Flores declined to address the speculation following Espanyol’s victory over Levante in a Copa del Rey match last night but a clear signal of their manager’s intentions is expected by this morning at the latest.

O’Neill held preliminary discussions with the club on Wednesday night and more formal talks yesterday but, with the ardent courting of Flores ongoing, the pursuit of the Ireland manager appeared to be more about having a back-up plan in place.

The FAI have maintained an official silence about the developments, although the noises from Abbotstown yesterday were considerably less optimistic than before about the prospect of O’Neill remaining in charge.

It was reported earlier in the week that they had received no approach from Stoke about talking to O’Neill but since the Derryman is technically a free agent — having not yet put pen to paper on an agreement to stay on as Ireland manager — the Premier League club were entitled to go directly to the Derryman without consulting Abbotstown.

However, since O’Neill and John Delaney verbally agreed a new deal as far back as October it would be a surprise if the manager didn’t keep the FAI boss abreast of his intentions.

From the FAI’s point of view, the position had been that, unless they heard differently, the verbal agreement continued to hold, with the manager remaining pencilled in to attend the European Nations draw in Lausanne in Switzerland on Wednesday week, January 24.

It has been the norm since O’Neill first became Ireland boss for a considerable amount of time to elapse between agreement on and signing of his contracts but the crushing nature of Ireland’s World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark in November hit the manager hard and also ramped up the levels of criticism of his stewardship of the team.

In the aftermath of the 5-1 defeat to the Danes, doubts were first aired in the media about him continuing in the post but, having licked his wounds, O’Neill appeared fully engaged in planning for 2018 with Ireland, finalising plans for a training camp and friendly away to Turkey in March and another friendly, this time against France in Paris, in May.

The events of this week, however, could hardly be further from business as usual.



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