Martin O’Neill still seen as safest bet by FAI
Neither the manager nor the association is likely to envisage a more attractive option
The Irish management team look on during the second leg of the Republic's playoff against Denmark. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It is likely to be at least a month and possibly the new year before it is confirmed that Martin O’Neill has signed a new contract but it is all but certain to happen despite his side’s failure to qualify for next summer’s World Cup.
The Derry man said at one point on Tuesday night that he would go away and think it all through before finally sorting things out one way or the other with the FAI, but there was talk too of rebuilding and of January’s draw for the inaugural Nations League and the fact is that there is no great sense from either party that they view the defeat by Denmark as having significantly altered the fact that a new deal has been agreed in principle.
It is unlikely, in any case, that either see themselves as having an obviously more attractive option than another two years together.
O’Neill’s achievements with Ireland, a qualification and a near miss, are probably more kindly regarded in Britain, where the merits and demerits of the Ireland squad he has had to work with are weighed up a little more dispassionately, but both his age and the way things finished for him at Sunderland would count against him if he really wanted a return to club football.
There would surely be offers but they are unlikely to be at the level that O’Neill still sees himself as being suited to. That sense of his own abilities has been fuelled over the past couple of years by Ireland’s best results during his time in charge – Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina away, Italy and Wales – all of which he mentions fairly regularly and most of which involved big calls on his part that paid off.
It seems unlikely, though, that he will have gone down too much in his own estimation after just about every decision he made on Tuesday evening backfired.
Inevitably, criticisms persist about the way his team plays and the related question of team selection, but O’Neill suggested back in September that he would be happy to pursue any priorities that the FAI sets out for him, the most obvious possibility being the development of a younger team playing a more attractive brand of football.
He must be well aware of how unlikely any change of direction is, however. It might well come at a cost, and the bottom line remains the same from his employer’s perspective: points mean prizes, and O’Neill’s job is to get Ireland to big championships because of the cash they bring in.
Dearth of youngsters
Qualifying next time will clearly be much more manageable, as there will be almost twice as many places up for grabs at Euro 2020, but even that cannot be taken for granted with the group of players he will take into the campaign.
There will have to be some evolution of the squad, with John O’Shea, Jon Walters, Glenn Whelan and Wes Hoolahan all potentially set to retire, but there is little enough young talent barging its way on to the scene.
Of the 10 players who made at least one bench but didn’t play in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, only one made a significant impact on the campaign just concluded – Harry Arter, and his contribution was probably not all that either he or O’Neill had hoped for.
Of those who have featured on the margins of this World Cup qualifying campaign, the likes of Conor Hourihane, Kevin Long and Sean Maguire should push on a bit. Hopefully Alan Judge will return from long-term injury, while Scott Hogan and Matt Doherty should get opportunities to show what they can do.
After that, there are some players with potential, such as West Ham defender Declan Rice, Bolton midfielder Josh Cullen and Connor Ronan of Wolves, but the oldest of these, Cullen, is just 21 and there are no guarantees that any will make the required progress. There are still high hopes for Jack Byrne, but his difficulties over the past year and a half are a start reminder of how foolish it is to think these things conform to any preordained time frame.
There may also be a new recruit or two along the way but for the most part the group of players and the way that they play will be largely the same in next year’s Nations League and the following year’s Euro 2020 qualifiers. If the association wished for change, it would surely say so and O’Neill might not look nearly such a certainty to carry on.
He will be long gone before it becomes clear whether the new youth development structures being implemented here in Ireland can be declared a success, but in the meantime he will face the same old challenge – that Ireland generally need to get the better of teams that are slightly superior to them in order to make it to major championships.
O’Neill might well contend that his side did well to get as far down the road as it did this time. After all, Ireland were the only team from among the fourth seeds to reach the play-offs (none qualified directly), and they were ultimately beaten by a better team. Still there is no escaping the fact that the manner of Tuesday’s defeat has taken some of the shine off his reputation.
He remains the simplest, safest option for the FAI, though, and if there is a better way for the team to move forward, the association shows little inclination to take the gamble required to find it.