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Has Martin O'Neill's relationship with the Irish team been damaged irreparably?

It has been confirmed that the Derry native will not be the new manager of Stoke.

Martin O'Neill had been heavily linked with the Stoke job.
Martin O'Neill had been heavily linked with the Stoke job.
Image: Tim Goode

IN THE HISTORY of the Irish national team, even the most successful managers have arguably outstayed their welcome.

Having produced a creditable display at the 1994 World Cup, Jack Charlton’s last campaign in charge featured far more lows than highs — comprehensive defeats by Austria, Portugal and the Netherlands spring to mind, as does the embarrassing 0-0 draw with Liechtenstein.

After a brilliant 2002 World Cup when they were unlucky to lose out to Spain on penalties, public opinion quickly turned against Mick McCarthy. The next qualification campaign began disastrously. The Boys in Green were beaten 4-2 away to Russia and lost 2-1 at home to Switzerland — by the end of the latter match, the commendable World Cup performance had been swiftly forgotten and many in the Lansdowne Road crowd began chanting the name of the absent Roy Keane. McCarthy subsequently stepped down.

Similarly, with Giovanni Trapattoni, he achieved the impressive feat of becoming the first manager since Charlton to qualify Ireland for the European Championships. But when the team lost all three of their matches in that tournament, many felt the time was right for the coach to quit. The FAI stood by their man, and the Boys in Green ended up performing poorly thereafter, finishing fourth in their group and suffering a humiliating 6-1 defeat against Germany.

Even after the Germany embarrassment, the FAI grimly persisted with Trap until the team’s World Cup hopes were effectively ended by a 1-0 defeat in Austria.

There is a concern that the 5-1 loss at home to Denmark will prove to be O’Neill’s ‘Germany moment’ — a demoralising loss from which the team are unable to fully recover until a clean break is made from the old set-up and a new manager comes in.

Yet perhaps that suspicion is unfair to O’Neill. After all, Ireland have suffered bad results under the Derry native before and recovered admirably — the 3-0 loss to Belgium was followed by the 1-0 victory over Italy at the Euros, while the 1-0 defeat by Serbia preceded morale-boosting wins over Moldova and Wales.

There is a sense that O’Neill has been a popular figure within the Ireland camp. When The42 spoke to Richard Keogh earlier this month (prior to the O’Neill-Stoke saga), the Derby defender — who was unavailable for the Denmark game through injury — was quite positive about the campaign overall.

“Watching the second game was disappointing, but I think we can be very proud of how we did — to finish second in such a tough group was a credit to everyone really,” he said.

To give ourselves an opportunity of going to the World Cup in a one-game shootout was a fantastic effort from everyone. It wasn’t the result we wanted, after speaking to the lads, it was tough and I was gutted, but I think it was another positive campaign. So I think the future is bright for Irish football.

“The ultimate goal was to qualify for the World Cup, we didn’t manage to do that, but we can be very proud of how we did in the qualifying campaign. It was a great effort from everyone, the management, the coaching staff, the players.

“We’ve got players playing regularly in the Premier League who are coming into the prime years of their career, some good experienced players as well, so when the next qualifying campaign comes around, I think there should be a positive ambition to qualify for another major tournament. We’re definitely good enough to do that.”

James McClean after the game as he waits to be interviewed James McClean was among those to back O'Neill following the Denmark defeat. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

James McClean has been similarly positive, saying “people have short memories” following the Denmark setback and backing O’Neill to stay on.

When O’Neill’s future was looking uncertain last week, The42 spoke to Ireland international Stephen Ward, who said that if O’Neill departed, it would be “a loss” from the national side’s perspective.

Everyone knows how we’ve done. We had a tough time in qualifying for the World Cup (against Denmark), but apart from that, we’ve had a great couple of years with himself and the coaching staff. He’s been great for everyone there.

“There’s speculation all the time about managers, until something’s signed on the dotted line, you just never know, and it’s never surprising that a manager who has done well is getting linked with jobs at club level. It’s a credit to them as managers.”

However, whether everyone in the squad is accepting of how O’Neill has conducted himself in recent days is uncertain.

The 65-year-old coach may claim he never wanted the Stoke job in the first place, but if that was the case, why did he choose to stay silent when the speculation was its most intense last week? When Ronald Koeman criticised Ireland’s handling of James McCarthy last March, O’Neill was very quick to issue a statement hitting out at Koeman and defending his staff. Why didn’t he respond in a similar fashion last week?

Consequently, despite the verbally agreed contract with the FAI, there is strong evidence to suggest O’Neill was interested in the Potters job and at one point strongly considered the possibility of leaving the Ireland set-up.

The current Irish players are unlikely to criticise O’Neill, as they are in an invidious position, but it is notable that two former internationals have expressed dissatisfaction with how the experienced coach has gone about his business.

In his Irish Times column, Richie Sadlier was critical of O’Neill, suggesting: “He can’t expect to walk back in as if nothing has happened.”

Speaking on Newstalk’s Off the Ball, Richard Dunne took a similar line, saying it would be “difficult” for O’Neill to come back into the Ireland job.

The former Celtic boss is a passionate man who prides himself on being able to get that extra 1-2% out of players. Despite managing inferior sides, he has masterminded big victories, from Manchester United and Barcelona, to Germany and Italy.

Players such as James McClean and Shane Duffy have routinely put their body on the line and given everything for their country.

But now that O’Neill has seemingly shown his hand and appeared reluctant to commit to the Irish job, will those inspirational words he is famed for start to ring hollow next time the squad meets up?

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Paul Fennessy

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