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Questionable timing as the FAI back their man to the hilt heading into do-or-die period

A contract extension for Martin O’Neill was announced on the eve of their penultimate World Cup qualifier.

O'Neill and Keane are set to stick around.
O'Neill and Keane are set to stick around.
Image: John Walton

WHEN MARTIN O’NEILL revealed yesterday that recent discussions with FAI head honcho John Delaney had gone well, it appeared eminently clear that he would be happy to commit to his current position for the foreseeable future.

Little did we know, however, that a contract extension would be officially announced via one the association’s social media accounts just hours later.

Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for a first World Cup finals in 16 years hang by a thread, with two victories over the next four days the only results that can potentially keep the dream alive.

With that in mind, the timing of this news feels a little strange.

Having reached Euro 2016 and subsequently produced an unforgettable night in Lille, Ireland’s performances last summer re-invigorated fans and brought about a renewed sense of optimism heading into the new campaign.

Then last November, a first-ever away win against the Austrians put the Boys in Green top of Group D thanks to 10 points from their opening four games, but 2017 has seen them relinquish that hugely promising position.

Ireland’s competitive results in this calendar year make for pretty poor reading — played 4, won 0, draws 3, losses 1, goals for 2, goals against 3. On top of that, the agricultural, direct style of football on show and, often, the lack of a definitive gameplan has turned a section of Irish supporters against the current management team.

Some will argue that waiting until after these next two critical fixtures to make a call O’Neill’s future would have been the smart option. That said, while they were both very different circumstances to this one, Giovanni Trapattoni and Mick McCarthy were handed new deals after qualifying for major tournaments but those decisions ultimately proved the wrong calls.

For better or for worse, the FAI have backed their man to the hilt and there are reasons to remain positive despite the general lack of optimism around right now.

Roy Keane and manager Martin O'Neill attend the game O'Neill and his management team at Tallaght Stadium watching the U21s last night. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

O’Neill and his backroom staff are clearly passionate about their roles and, at times over the past four years, they have produced on the big occasion. Unlike Trapattoni, they regularly visit League of Ireland games, go to watch their players at club level and take an interest in the international underage teams.

Just last night, they were present at Tallaght Stadium to take notes and keep an eye on the future of Irish football as the U21s drew 0-0 with Norway.

“We’ve looked at the fact that there are some young players coming through — when I say ‘young players’ I’m talking about mid-20s — who will hopefully take on the mantle of the older players when they drop out of the squad,” O’Neill said yesterday. “So I think there is much to look forward to.”

In 2017, he has handed senior international debuts to John Egan, Daryl Horgan, Conor Hourihane, Andy Boyle, Alan Browne and Kevin Long. There could be a couple more this week too as uncapped trio Sean Maguire, Scott Hogan and Aiden O’Brien are all in the squad.

Granted, the chances of making the play-offs are slim but it’s not all doom and gloom. Scotland’s late winner against Slovakia last night means if Gordon Strachan’s side now fail to beat Slovenia, two wins would be enough for Ireland.

The players and management have, at least publicly, insisted they are only focusing on Moldova but what should be a routine three points against the Group D minnows tonight will set up a mouth-watering meeting with Wales — minus their talisman Gareth Bale — at the Cardiff City Stadium on Monday.

This time two years ago, Shane Long’s thunderbolt beyond Manuel Neuer gave O’Neill’s side an unlikely victory over the world champions Germany.

We’re not out of it just yet.

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