Martin was play­ing hard to get... but the big clubs were hardly beat­ing his door down

Man­ager had to leave af­ter string of bad re­sults

Sunday Mirror (Northern Ireland) - - News - BY JA­SON O’TOOLE ir­[email protected]

IT felt like Martin O’Neill was play­ing hard to get when the FAI first ap­proached him about the Ire­land job in 2013.

It might have looked like an act to land the best pos­si­ble fi­nan­cial pack­age – but the truth is I be­lieve he ac­tu­ally didn’t want the gig at that time.

O’Neill badly wanted to man­age an­other Pre­mier­ship club in­stead.

I know this be­cause it was ac­tu­ally my old friend Jimmy Magee who first took it upon him­self to sound out O’Neill’s in­ter­est in the job – and, to both our as­ton­ish­ment, he ini­tially shot down the idea.

This is how it hap­pened. Shortly be­fore Gio­vanni Tra­p­at­toni was given his march­ing or­ders, Jimmy and I were en­joy­ing lunch in the salu­bri­ous sur­round­ings of the Stephen’s Green Hiber­nian Club in Dublin.

At the time, I had just co-writ­ten with Jimmy his best-sell­ing mem­oir Mem­ory Man and we were work­ing on our sec­ond book to­gether, Dif­fer­ent Class.

Jimmy al­ways saw the glass as half full and re­mained up­beat even when the chips were down.

But on this par­tic­u­lar day he was de­flated about Ire­land’s re­cent run of “abysmal per­for­mances”.

“It’s ob­vi­ous Tra­p­at­toni should be sacked or fall on his own sword. I would opt for Martin O’Neill, who also hap­pens to be from Derry,” Jimmy told me.

“He is very much one of us, and he would be ter­rific. He did a fan­tas­tic job at Celtic and Le­ices­ter.

BACK-UP PLAN

“I doubt the FAI have ever been in touch with Martin but I would say he would love to do it.”

Right there and then, Jimmy made up his mind to call O’Neill.

Af­ter our slap-up meal, we found a quiet cor­ner in the club for Jimmy to phone him.

It was so silent you could hear a pin drop, which meant I could easily eaves­drop on their en­tire con­ver­sa­tion.

Never one for beat­ing around the bush, Jimmy got straight down to brass tacks. “Martin, would you be in­ter­ested in man­ag­ing Ire­land?” Jimmy asked.

It was a con­ver­sa­tion between friends, so there was ab­so­lutely no rea­son for O’Neill to be coy.

But Jimmy was left flab­ber­gasted when O’Neill said he would pre­fer a job with a Pre­mier­ship club.

O’Neill made it clear he was itch­ing to get back into man­age­ment. He was un­em­ployed at the time, hav­ing been sacked by Sun­der­land ear­lier that year.

Nev­er­the­less, he ap­peared to be un­en­thu­si­as­tic about the Ire­land job.

Per­haps O’Neill thought he could have earned more in the Pre­mier­ship. But Trap was earn­ing a stag­ger­ing €1.5mil­lion from the FAI – even af­ter tak­ing a cut.

Was that not good enough for a part-time job? Or per­haps O’Neill felt he had un­fin­ished busi­ness in the English league and thought the op­por­tu­nity to man­age Ire­land would come again.

Ei­ther way, O’Neill didn’t ap­pear to see be­ing Ire­land man­ager as his dream job. He would rather watch his team strug­gle on a cold win­ter’s night against Stoke City, as the fa­mous say­ing goes. Such re­luc­tance would’ve been un­der­stand­able if O’Neill was hold­ing out for a top job at an elite club with a £5mil­lion pay packet. But even he knew in his heart the likes of Manchester United or Liver­pool were never go­ing to be beat­ing down his door. At best, O’Neill was hop­ing for a mid-ta­ble team. At worst, a bot­tom side in a dog­fight to avoid rel­e­ga­tion.

How could this ap­pear more at­trac­tive than man­ag­ing your coun­try? In the end, no English club did of­fer him a job and the rest, as they say, is his­tory.

So, I don’t think you can blame me for be­ing scep­ti­cal when O’Neill fi­nally took the Ire­land job. There’s no doubt he would have been flooded with job of­fers if Ire­land had

O’Neill got us to the last Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship – but on a wing and a prayer thanks to some flukey re­sults

per­formed con­sis­tently well – but they never did. To give him his dues, O’Neill got us to the last Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship – but on a wing and a prayer thanks to some flukey re­sults. But getting beaten 5-1 by Den­mark was un­ac­cept­able.

It was al­most as bad as when Steve Staunton over­saw a 5-2 de­feat to min­nows Cyprus in 2007.

I wish him every suc­cess, but I don’t en­vis­age too many Pre­mier­ship clubs will be queu­ing up now for his ser­vices.

FRIEND Late broad­caster Magee was close to O’Neill

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