Was Martin O'Neill a pawn in Stoke City's great game?

Quique Sanchez Flores has become Stoke's number one target

BY Darren Cleary 08:17 Friday 12 January 2018, 8:17 12 Jan 2018

©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

“Sometimes it’s not a question of ‘Who?’ it’s a question of ‘Who Knows?’ There are certain people – they are markers. If they start to move, I’ll know something’s up – like rats deserting a sinking ship.”  Sherlock Holmes

The great detective Sherlock Holmes had a formula for predicting the future; the fictional crime fighter detailed his method in the 1903 short story "The Adventure of the Empty House." There are certain people and their actions tend to give a hint as to what will happen next.

The same is true of sports journalists, they often have an ability to predict the future and their stories are much like Sherlock Holmes' markers. Yesterday all the markers suggested that Martin O’Neill was gone and it was a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ confirmation he was joining Stoke City would come.

O’Neill had held talks with the club’s chairman and would soon be the new manager of the Premier League strugglers; he’d be taking Roy Keane with him – so went the stories from all of the prominent football writers in the country.

24 hours later and they appear to have been wide of the mark, the majority of informed soccer writers, broadcasters and pundits apparently duped. Former Watford boss Quique Sanchez Flores has become Stoke's number one target for the vacant manager's position.

Flores was coy on his future after his Espanyol team won at Levante in the Copa del Rey on Thuesday night but he's set for more talks with the club today.

Did the press deliberately spread misinformation, did they jump the gun or did their sources mislead them? Some of the football gossip sites pushed the unconfirmed story, some jumped the gun, I was guilty of that one in coverage of the story on air. Others were possibly mislead by well placed sources close to the situation.

Martin O’Neill for his part, when he does next meet the media and this topic is broached, will likely express offense. It might be genuine too, O’Neill is old school and he has given his word to remain as the Republic of Ireland manager.

As far as he is concerned that is good enough, being slow to sign on the dotted line is not unusual for the enigmatic Derryman, it took him almost a year to actually scrawl his signature on his last contract.

The O’Neill story likely did come from well placed sources at Stoke. Their intention for sharing the information was not to inform fans of their progress on the hunt for a new manager but to put pressure on their preferred choice.

If that was Sanchez from day one, then the flirtation with O’Neill will only serve to strengthen their hand when it comes to negotiating with the man they really want to save them from relegation.

O’Neill is a pawn in the great game, unless Sanchez says no, then it gets really interesting. The surprising thing is not that this kind of stuff happens, but that the ‘markers’ who deliver our sports news fell for the ruse.

The same tactics were used to help lure O’Neill into the Republic of Ireland job in 2013. He was the preferred candidate to replace Giovanni Trapattoni, but reports suggested that he was hesitant to commit. It was a surprise when I spoke to an FAI insider at a press conference who told me that Mick McCarthy would be the next Ireland manager.

Thinking I may have been gifted an exclusive I was shocked to see every other outlet run the same line. O’Neill was announced as the manager the next week.

McCarthy knew that the press and bookmakers installing him the frontrunner was just a ploy to put pressure on O’Neill to commit, when it was put to him that he was hotly tipped to be the next Ireland manager according to FAI insiders he cut through the bullshit: “Martin O’Neill is getting the job as far as I’m aware. That’s totally nailed on. He’s a shoo-in for it.”

Now just over four years later the same story is unfolding, Stoke City are doing what they have to do to get their man. This time O’Neill is the bait.



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