Michael O'Neill has steered his League of Ireland side to unprecedented heights but is set to leave as the country's economic woes take their toll
The end of Shamrock Rovers' Europa League campaign will also be marked by the end of an era – for the club and quite possibly for Irish football. Their manager, Michael O'Neill, has announced that he will leave the Irish champions when his contract expires at the end of the month and he could be followed by the majority of the players as football feels the effects of the disintegration of the Irish economy. This a team that operates at the opposite end of the spectrum to Tottenham Hotspur, who will field a second-string containing seven internationals when the teams meet in the final match of Europa League Group A in Tallaght on Thursday night.
Rovers this season became the first Irish club ever to qualify for the group stages of a European competition but despite that windfall they, like all Irish clubs, have embarked on a bout of belt-tightening in response to the slashing of their domestic prize money and commercial revenue. The club have been unable to agree a new deal with O'Neill, whose negotiating hand has been strengthened by the knowledge that his exploits at Rovers have attracted interest from elsewhere. He is expected to be interviewed next week for the vacant managerial position of Northern Ireland, with whom he won 33 caps as a player. He, along with his assistant at Rovers, Jim Magilton, is among the leading candidates for a job that he refuses to talk about publicly until after the clash with the side managed by a man who may also be a future manager of a home nation.
"Michael's done a top-class job here and I'm sure he'd be a good choice for the Northern Ireland job if they go for him," said Harry Redknapp.
In his three years with Rovers O'Neill has won two consecutive League of Ireland titles. They take on Tottenham on Thursday having lost all five of their previous matches in the group but having performed honourably, memorably taking the lead at White Hart Lane in October before falling to a 3-1 defeat. They have the worst goal difference of any of the teams left in the tournament but the gulf in resources between Rovers and the rest of the clubs is far bigger than a record of scored four, conceded 15 from five matches would suggest. "We have played 16 European matches over the last two years and acquitted ourselves very well in all of them," said O'Neill, whose tactical acumen has been hailed as one of the main factors in the side's success.
The 42-year-old has been able to alternate radically different approaches from one competition to another, deploying a relatively defensive system in Europe while setting out more assertively in the domestic league, which Rovers won by four points despite the additional physical demands placed on his part-time players by a European campaign that has stretched their season to 59 matches.
The domestic Irish season runs from March to October but Rovers' players are relatively privileged in Ireland as theirs has been extended to cover the Spurs game. Others players in the league have signed on the dole to help get by until next season. "Some of our players will probably do that too after the match against Tottenham," said the captain, Dan Murray. "It could be the last game for the club for a lot of people, not just the manager. That's why I say the financial situation of the league will make it very difficult for any Irish club to do what we've done again."
O'Neill foresees a return to emigration of footballers. "The options for young Irish players are outside this league," he said. "A lot of these players could do well in England or Scotland and this match is an opportunity for them to put themselves in the shop window." Rovers' left-back Enda Stevens has already agreed a January transfer to Aston Villa, while the striker Karl Sheppard has been heavily linked to Cardiff City and centre-back Ronan Finn has attracted interest from Crystal Palace. The winger Billy Dennehy has previously been with Sunderland and is expected to cross the Irish Sea again. All of which provides an extra incentive to excel against Tottenham, who still have a slim chance of progressing to the next stage of the Europa League.
The London club need to beat Rovers and hope Paok Salonika win against Rubin Kazan, with the combined results causing a swing of five goals.
Redknapp has left Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart and Aaron Lennon in London but insists he wants to advance in the tournament. "It's going to be difficult to qualify but we're going to try to win the game and see what happens from there," he said. "I've left a few behind but I've still brought seven full internationals with me." He made it clear, however, that his priority is the Premier League, and the chasm between Rovers and Spurs was underlined when Redknapp talked about possible January transfers to strengthen a title bid. "We're not desperate to bring anyone in but if a special player becomes available who can give us an extra 10% the chairman would back me." Tottenham believe they have a genuine opportunity to win the Premier League this season and are determined not to let it slip. "There are six teams very close and any one of us could win it," he said. "But at the same time just finishing in the top four is going to be very difficult."