Stoke af­fair leaves ev­ery­one in­sulted and cheap­ened

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan

Af­ter last Novem­ber’s derby de­feat a seething Manch­ester United fan glow­ered from un­der his hood and de­liv­ered, right out­side Old Traf­ford and on cam­era, a mag­nif­i­cent if salty-tongued tirade against Jose Mour­inho and the gilded mil­lion­aires in the lux­ury dress­ing room.

“We’re not f***in Stoke,” he fumed at one point, splut­ter­ing over the very idea. “We’re Man’ f **** in United.” The Lan­cashire out­rage within that phrase has echoed through this week’s bizarre love tri­an­gle fea­tur­ing the Repub­lic of Ire­land, Martin O’Neill and Stoke City FC, af­ter which noth­ing much has changed and ev­ery­one is left feel­ing mildly in­sulted and cheap­ened.

Repub­lic of Ire­land fans could feel in­sulted that Martin O’Neill was, ac­cord­ing to many re­ports, ready to walk away for per­haps a mere half-sea­son with the Pot­ters with­out a back­wards glance. There was an un­spo­ken dis­be­lief not so much that O’Neill might quit his post for a Pre­mier club role but that he would leave Ire­land for, well, Stoke – which, of course, is a slight on Stoke City FC and the outer bor­oughs along the Trent.

O’Neill, equally, can feel in­sulted that any­one would be­lieve that he would re­nege on his ver­bal agree­ment with FAI chief ex­ec­u­tive John Delaney to re­main in charge for an­other cam­paign. He might also feel slightly ag­grieved and hurt at the ab­sence of a deaf­en­ing public cho­rus beg­ging him to stay.

Delaney and the FAI can feel out­raged that an English club would so brazenly and openly line up their man, leav­ing them pow­er­less to do any­thing about it. Ire­land foot­ball fans can feel an­gered by the FAI’s dither­ing for two months over ac­tu­ally se­cur­ing the sig­na­ture of O’Neill on the line that is dot­ted in­stead of leav­ing the po­si­tion float­ing on the vague no­tion of a hand­shake.

Roy Keane, mean­time, could feel miffed at the fact that he was por­trayed as a sort of or­phan in the whole cha­rade, who would only re­main in Ire­land as new man­ager if O’Neill couldn’t se­cure him a place on the Stoke ticket.

And fi­nally, Stoke City’s rev­e­la­tion that, ac­tu­ally, the man­ager they re­ally want is Quique Sánchez Flores could be in­ter­preted as a sweep­ing in­sult to Martin O’Neill, to Roy Keane, to the FAI and to Ir­ish foot­ball in gen­eral. Call it Stoke’s re­venge. We’re not f **** in Ire­land. We’re Stoke f **** in City. In­deed they are and good luck to them. The world moves on. When word broke that O’Neill and Keane were, in fact, fly­ing into Dublin for last night’s Soc­cer Writ­ers As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land awards ban­quet, it was in­ter­preted as a full stop on the in­trigue.

Both O’Neill and Keane would ap­pre­ci­ate the irony of their at­ten­dance. One minute you’re sup­posed to be get­ting Stoke City ready for Mon­day’s evening big game against “Man f***in United”, the next you are re­gal­ing the Ir­ish foot­ball me­dia with tales of the For­est years over late night brandies. It’s a funny old game.

Ex­cept, of course, that it’s not.

Tease

There was some­thing oddly hol­low about the on­go­ing would-he-stay-or-would-he-go tease. There is no ques­tion that ev­ery­one – man­age­ment, as­so­ci­a­tion, team and fans – is still feel­ing fa­tigued and drained af­ter the thump­ing 5-1 World Cup play­off de­feat to Den­mark. James McClean’s teary post-match in­ter­view was a last­ing re­minder that for all their lim­i­ta­tions, for all their their stag­ger­ing or­di­nar­i­ness, those play­ers are lim­it­lessly com­mit­ted to the idea of play­ing for Ire­land.

You can’t ask for more. Af­ter­wards, ev­ery­one wanted to for­get about the boys in green for a time and foot­ball fans re­turned to the Pre­mier League. But that was their lux­ury. In the empty months, it be­hove Delaney and O’Neill to for­malise their agree­ment, draw up and sign a new con­tract and be­gin to put to­gether a plan to de­velop the in­ter­na­tional side over the next two years.

Why hasn’t this hap­pened? On the night of that Den­mark de­feat, any­one present at O’Neill’s post-match con­fer­ence could de­tect a kind of hes­i­tancy at work in his mind. The Derry man is bril­liantly shrewd and wears his 40 years of elite foot­ball experience lightly.

But it would have been un­der­stand­able if that 5-1 drub­bing – and the sharp crit­i­cal re­ac­tion – had un­nerved him a lit­tle and made him stop to con­sider if he wanted or needed an­other two years of grind­ing out re­sults, of con­stant crit­i­cism of his tac­tics and of how his teams play, of the long pe­ri­ods of in­ac­tiv­ity, of ques­tions about Wes [Hoola­han].

It would be un­der­stand­able, too, that a chance to pit him­self against [Pep] Guardi­ola or [Jose] Mour­inho; to experience again, at the age of 65, the weekly thrill and roar of the English foot­ball win­ter, might have been ir­re­sistible. There is, of course, no con­fir­ma­tion that O’Neill ever so much as took a phone call from Stoke rep­re­sen­ta­tives, let alone sat down for ‘talks’.

But if O’Neill was truly, madly, deeply com­mit­ted to the idea of an­other two years with Ire­land, wouldn’t he have signed by now? Se­cur­ing O’Neill and Keane was a deft piece of work by the FAI. They are two of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary foot­ball peo­ple this is­land has pro­duced and both have had the sort of starry foot­ball ca­reers that fu­ture Ir­ish play­ers are un­likely to em­u­late.

Totemic fig­ures

Keane re­mains one of the totemic fig­ures of the Pre­mier League age. O’Neill was once re­garded as the one of the hottest man­age­rial tick­ets in English foot­ball, tipped as Alex Fer­gu­son’s suc­ces­sor. But English foot­ball has changed rad­i­cally since then: the money is vast, the turnover of stars is swift and the at­mos­phere is cut-throat. It’s big busi­ness with foot­ball as the front-of-house theatre. Man­agers ex­ist un­der a sav­age scru­tiny.

Who knows whether O’Neill and Keane thirsted for that? How close they did or did not come to set­ting up shop in Stoke may never be re­vealed and doesn’t re­ally mat­ter.

What mat­ters is what hap­pens now. The worst out­come would be a sense that O’Neill is stuck with the Ire­land team and Ire­land with O’Neill. The Ir­ish play­ers and sup­port­ers de­serve bet­ter.

Ire­land achieved some amaz­ing re­sults and have been re­mark­ably com­pet­i­tive un­der the Derry man. But for all that, there has al­ways been a sense that O’Neill has held some­thing of him­self back; that he isn’t fully con­vinced Ire­land is the team he should be manag­ing.

Stoke City have in­ad­ver­tently done Ire­land a favour. It’s high time for Delaney and the FAI to agree terms with O’Neill ei­ther way in­stead of sit­ting paral­ysed with fear that they won’t be able to re­place the O’Neill/Keane ticket with any­thing like the same star power or rep­u­ta­tion.

They owe it to their public to clar­ify who is manag­ing the Repub­lic’s team. And it’s time, then, for O’Neill to throw him­self into this next cam­paign by sum­mon­ing all of that for­mi­da­ble ner­vous en­ergy of his for one more and pos­si­bly one last burst at de­fy­ing the odds – if , in­deed, that is what he still wants.

That’s the ques­tion he must surely have been turn­ing over in his mind as he passed the med­ley of veg­eta­bles last evening and maybe ex­changed a wry grin with Keane. Is he up for this? Or has the time come to say thanks and all the best and to sit back on Mon­day night and watch United ver­sus Stoke with­out a care in the world?

It’s high time for Delaney and the FAI to agree terms with O’Neill ei­ther way in­stead of sit­ting paral­ysed with fear that they won’t be able to re­place the O’Neill/Keane ticket

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