When Denmark beat the Republic of Ireland so emphatically in Dublin last November, some people started to think it was time for change. When it was reported that Martin O’Neill was disappointed by the criticism he received for that defeat, I felt the case to replace him strengthened a little more. There were further reports that claimed he was considering his future for a while after that, and now this week he was said to have been interviewing for another job.
The period for debating the merits of retaining O Neill has lapsed. His time is up, and the FAI board must know that too.
Here’s one take on the events of the past week: nothing actually happened. O’Neill’s contractual situation hasn’t altered, his desire hasn’t diminished and his commitment to the job is as strong as ever. He was heavily linked to the Stoke City job, but that doesn’t change a thing. It just demonstrates that he’s still sought-after, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
I’m sure there will be some who will look to spin it this way. Maybe to limit the reputational damage of everyone involved, you’ll get some who will say that this is commonplace in top-flight football. Managers are approached, agreements broken, loyalties change, and people move on. Players know how the game is played so they’ll be unaffected. It’s how business is done in this industry, and everyone knows it.
Back in the real world, though, it's an embarrassing mess for both parties. There's no other credible take on what's been reported. Just carrying on as if nothing happened is head-in-the-sand stuff, which isn't to say that's not what the FAI will do. That might be just what O'Neill would like, given he has nowhere else to go, but staying silent and riding this out is not going to work. John Delaney needs to lead on this and speak up.
Luckily, we shouldn’t have too long to wait, given that he has gushed in the past about the FAI’s commitment to transparency in football governance. A lengthy statement, and maybe some follow-up interviews are sure to be on the horizon for a chief executive who is on record as once saying the following: “We’ve got a very open approach to the game. We have an agm every year, our accounts are given to the public, our members. I don’t know what more we can do in terms of being open and transparent.”
Regular observers of Irish football could probably help him out on that one. First of all, explain why the senior international manager has been allowed to operate without a signed contract for so long. Since when is that best practice? Whose idea was it to continue with just a verbal agreement? Is Denis O’Brien, or others, still contributing to his salary? And if they are, did they have any say in whether he stays? In other words, does the FAI board have full control on this issue? These are straightforward queries that require straightforward replies.
The most generous reading of the FAI’s part in all of this is that it wasn’t overly committed to O’Neill staying on. In such a scenario, you might excuse them for allowing him to remain freely available to others. After all, if they didn’t really want him to stay, then it wouldn’t be a disaster if he went, which is why they were happy the agreement remained unsigned. That’s possible, of course, but hardly flattering. If that was actually the case, why didn’t they just let him go? Why not walk away from the agreement themselves? Why not assert this position by going after someone they wanted? In other words, why not act with leadership?
Getting the run-around
Maybe they’re perfectly okay with O’Neill seeking work elsewhere. Maybe it’s part of their agreement? It’s possible they have a contingency plan in place for when he leaves, but I seriously doubt it. They appear to be getting the run-around from someone who is playing the game very well, but it’s not a scenario that should be allowed to continue.
Putting aside the legal arguments on the validity of their verbal agreement, keeping O'Neill in charge is not a viable option. He arrived four years ago with a reputation for passion and enthusiasm, but you can't claim full commitment if you're actively seeking an exit. I know what I'd be thinking if I was in his dressing room and he started to question the mentality of any of the players. His words would fall flat. Richard Dunne said as much on Newstalk during the week. He can't expect to walk back in as if nothing has happened.
It’s gone beyond debating whether he does enough to tactically prepare the players before each game. It doesn’t matter anymore how reckless and naive his substitutions were against Denmark. The post-match prickliness with the media is also irrelevant. He took a gamble and it didn’t pay off, but there’s a price to pay.
Whether he stays or goes, the focus will remain on the board of the FAI and their handling of this issue. Silence isn’t an option any longer for them. A brief press statement won’t wash either. Whatever about O’Neill explaining how he feels about the Ireland job, it’s time for John Delaney to speak with transparency about what he does, too.