MARTIN O’NEILL’S hokey- Stokey continues.
He is in the running again for the bet365 Stadium hotseat — after being out of it over the past 72 hours.
Quique Sanchez Flores’ decision to reject Stoke City’s overturns and megabucks offer of a five-year deal to stay at Espanyol means that the Ireland gaffer, again, is the man the Potters will approach.
O’Neill will also now be able to talk to the Premier League strugglers from a greater position of strength as the club’s desperation grows.
When Stoke fired Mark Hughes a week ago, following their FA Cup elimination by League Two Coventry City, O’Neill was on their shortlist but by no means first-choice.
Derby County’s Gary Rowett was the man the City hierarchy wanted.
But he had no interest and proved it by signing a contract extension at the iPro Stadium.
Spanish coach Flores has now also turned them down.
Now Stoke chairman Peter Coates and son John will go back to O’Neill. They spoke with the Derry man last week, while also holding conversations with Flores.
But with the Espanyol gaffer leaving the running, it appears the Irishman can make his own demands.
Stoke initially viewed O’Neill — who has never been relegated — as a stop-gap appointment until the end of the season but a short-term contract unacceptable to him then, as it is now.
A longer-term deal will be on the table now and negotiations could be wrapped up quickly.
The Potters are hoping their new man will be in place for tomorrow’s visit to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United at Old Trafford.
That O’Neill is interested in a return to club management looks like a given, based on his actions in the last week. While Flores committed to his La Liga side and Rowett has signed a deal offered to him by his Championship outfit, O’Neill has not put pen to paper on the contract he agreed with the FAI on October 5.
He was also in Dublin on Friday and had no greater platform to state his intensions than when he attended the SSE Airtricity Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland awards.
Every Irish football journalist was in attendance hoping for some clarity from the gaffer — and organisers bent over backwards to accommodate him.
The awards were packed to capacity and O’Neill’s last-ditch decision to come and bring his backroom entourage of Roy Keane, Seamus McDonagh, Steve Guppy and Steve Walford was a nightmare for the table planner.
At one point on Friday, an email went around to members of the association which asked if anyone would be willing to give up their seat — the event was that full.
Thankfully, there were a number of late cancellations anyway and everyone who wanted to be there and could be there was accommodated.
Everything that could be done was done to accommodate O’Neill in clarifying the week’s headlines if he wanted to as well.
Through the FAI Press team, he was asked to speak and he could choose his platform — whether it was a formal Press conference, a quick huddle in the Conrad Hotel lobby, a statement or a Q&A on stage.
He could have stepped on stage and channelled his inner Leonardo Di Caprio from the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ by declaring: “I’m not f**king leaving” if he wanted to.
But O’Neill refused all requests, with journalists informed that he viewed the awards as a private function and he wanted to enjoy the night. The phrase ‘Sing for you supper’ appears not to apply if you are the Ireland manager.
Journalists instead were forced to ‘doorstep’ him as, 30 minutes after guests were called to dinner, O’Neill walked into the hotel flanked by FAI head of security Bobby Ward and competitions director Fran Gavin.
He was asked for a few words but stared blankly ahead not even acknowledging the existence of the people — his hosts for the night — around him.
Now, he probably has the hump given some of the stuff that has been written about him recently.
But snubbing the media came across as two fingers to every Ireland fan who wants some clarity from him.
He took his seat at Table 9. That was also a departure from a norm as the Ireland manager has always sat at the top table which is hosted by the Soccer Writers’ President.
Traditionally, tables are ‘hosted’ by journalists.
O’Neill’s table had no reporters on it with just the manager, his backroom staff and FAI administration personnel pulling up chairs.
It was the elephant in the room for the whole night — even the comedians in attendance were reluctant to bring it up, with just one mention of Stoke City in their set.
Still, O’Neill probably enjoyed the evening.
His table won the quiz that is run between courses.
Unfortunately, there were no joke questions about who the Stoke City manager is or who would be the Ireland manager by 2020 when we will be partly hosting the Euros.
When people realised what table won and the lads were invited on stage to collect their prize, the joke going around was it was one way of getting a word from O’Neill.
But instead, FAI’s communications manager and quiz expert Gareth Maher collected the prizes.
The closest anyone got to O’Neill on the night was a number of guests who went over to get selfies.
When the function was over, the former Leicester City and Celtc supermo was off in the flash and was seen exiting the building with his phone glued to his year.
When he deigns to speak, we might found out if it was Stoke on the blower.