The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has a new marketing phrase and it works. They say that their green and now pleasant land is “made for golf,” and a quick trip North last week proved it.
The Americans and Canadians we bumped into at Castlerock, the hidden gem on the coastline that also hosts Portrush and Portstewart, certainly agreed on the golfing topic, but their knowledge of the FAI’s search for a new soccer manager left a lot to be desired.
And that’s not a criticism. I doubt many Americans or Canadians are too worried about the current state of the Irish national team. And it’s unlikely they’ve heard of the ousted Giovanni Trapattoni for all his fame on this side of the Atlantic.
There is a link, though, between the race to succeed Trap and one of Northern Ireland’s finest golf courses at Galgorm Castle, a fine parkland layout that deserves inclusion on any Ulster trip itinerary.
Some weeks ago, the same Galgorm Castle course hosted the Northern Ireland Open on the European Challenge Tour, the second division of professional golf in these parts.
As is customary for such tournaments, the Northern Ireland Open held a pro-am event on the day before the first of the four rounds when many celebrities and even ordinary commoner golfers joined those who play for their living.
The amateurs on the day included one Martin O’Neill, a Derry man who won a European Cup medal with Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, played many times for his country and went on to manage at the highest level in England and Scotland.
Being the intrepid sorts that we are at the Irish Sun sports department, we sent our top man Neil O’Riordan up to Galgorm for the day.
At the time we had a manager in place in the shape of the aforementioned Trapattoni but it was no secret, even before the calamities to follow against Sweden and Austria, that the Italian’s days were numbered.
Neil’s brief that day was simple. Approach Martin O’Neill and find out if he wanted to return to work less than seven months after he had been axed at Sunderland.
As expected, Martin did talk although he wouldn’t discuss the Republic job out of respect for his peer Trapattoni. We knew that was going to be the case, but we did get a story.
O’Neill announced that afternoon in Galgorm Castle that he was “keen” to return to management after his hiatus, news that was welcomed within the FAI’s corridors of power.
Now, with Trap gone, O’Neill is the favourite to succeed Trapattoni with the bookies, but this particular story may have legs to run before we know who’s going to lead our bid to qualify for Euro 2016.
I suspected as much when I walked those same Galgorm Castle fairways as a guest of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board – made for golf remember – last week.
My colleagues from Northern Ireland, football men who know O’Neill far better than I do, weren’t keen to rubberstamp the notion that he is a certainty for the Republic job.
Their argument, made with knowledge and good reason, was that O’Neill wants a return to Premier League management before international football will take his fancy.
Having turned the FAI down for very legitimate personal reasons when Steve Staunton got the job seven years ago, they felt sure he wouldn’t be rushed into it again.
And they were insistent that all the publicity surrounding the FAI’s interest in his services would be welcomed by the man himself, simply because it put O’Neill back in the shop window.
Events in recent days have only reinforced my Ulster colleagues’ theory. On Sunday, the erratic Paolo Di Canio lost his job as O’Neill’s successor at Sunderland with the team cemented to the bottom of the Premier League.
On Monday, more than one English newspaper suggested that Chris Hughton at Norwich and Martin Jol at Fulham are both under threat of the axe as Premier League chairmen get tetchy. Guess who was named as favorite for both jobs? The very same Martin O’Neill.
That night the FAI’s board of management met in Dublin and made two key appointments, with under-21 boss Noel King given charge of our senior team for the final World Cup qualifiers away to Germany and home to Kazakhstan. Giants Stadium hero Ray Houghton asked to lead the search for a new Ireland manager.