Martin O'Neill yesterday publicly ruled himself out of becoming the next England manager – but his words had the kind of heavy qualification that might just encourage the Football Association should they push ahead with approaching him.
However, his declarations also showed how difficult it will be for the FA to land their man with a firm pledge that he had a "commitment" to Aston Villa. That should set alarm bells ringing for the FA chief executive, Brian Barwick, who wants O'Neill, and has been given the task of finding Steve McClaren's replacement.
The fact that Barwick has been told to cast his net "far and wide" and consider every possible candidate, but to not undergo the ham-fisted interview process that stymied the previous appointment, might just work in the FA's favour. For O'Neill is in no rush and, if pushed, will certainly say no. Yesterday, he put forward the case for approaching Fabio Capello and Jose Mourinho – mainly because they were good coaches who are not currently in employment. "There are fantastic candidates who are out there and who are not actually in club management," O'Neill said.
The 55-year-old Northern Irishman has shown his stickability time and again – staying at Wycombe Wanderers, Leicester City and Celtic – when others expected him to leave and yesterday talked of not wanting to let the Villa supporters, staff and players down. As ever with the shrewd, media-savvy, charismatic O'Neill, who is on a one-year rolling contract at Villa Park, it was a case of decodifying his statements.
But, for the sake of clarity this is exactly what he said when asked yesterday for his "definitive answer" on England: "This is the whole point," O'Neill said. "I'm very uncomfortable, very uneasy about doing interviews on hypothetical cases for a start. I can understand how this has arisen because I was on the shortlist last time I was interviewed for the job and didn't get the job. So I suppose my name would occur again.
"No one has ever contacted me, that's obvious. It's so early that I would not remotely be expecting them [the FA] to be thinking about it. But let me tell you: I have a commitment to this football club. The last time I didn't have a commitment. I was not in club management, for other reasons anyway, and when the opportunity came up to be interviewed for England at the time then great, absolutely, I was flattered and went to the interview and obviously didn't do well enough.
"Now you will have to ask yourself the question – why would you be asked back again? But to put it all in perspective I don't like, I'm uncomfortable with, something especially when people at the other end of this are thinking 'actually, we've got 15 people to interview and you are not going to be one of them'. So, I'm uncomfortable but more importantly than that the issue is a commitment here to Aston Villa and I am absolutely committed to this.
"I have set out, 16 months ago, to do this job. This job is far from complete and may never get complete. I feel as if I'm starting out on it, feel as if we are getting things together, getting a young side that are trying to gel. And, as importantly, I feel in terms of the Aston Villa support who have come out in big numbers, I have all those things to consider and I have considered them and I want to do this job. That really should end it."
Except it won't. O'Neill could say little else at this stage and it may well be that he remains committed to staying at Villa even if the FA do make a decisive move. Naturally he feels "uncomfortable" but it is far from likely that there are 15 candidates ahead of him in any queue – and he needs to be told that – while it is also clear that he did not appreciate the previous recruitment process. He is also in a job.
However, sources close to the club's owner Randy Lerner are adamant that O'Neill has given a commitment to staying and that may prove even more insurmountable than what he said in public yesterday. O'Neill also confirmed that, as revealed by The Independent, he had spoken to Lerner about the England job in the light of the American's declaration last month that he would not stand in the manager's way if he wanted to leave. "He felt that whatever he'd said had come out in the wrong fashion and wasn't what he meant," O'Neill explained. "He does want me to be his manager."
O'Neill, speaking at Villa's training ground, again voiced his discomfort at being linked with England. "It's just my straightforward decision to take, to do the job here," he said. "I say decision but it's not a decision until you get asked. I want to make that clear. Please, I don't want to be overly self-effacing. I just feel uncomfortable. You are talking about a door being shut – but a door might not have been open in the first place."
Given his strong links, and similarities, to Brian Clough, whom he played under, there is also the real fear that he could fall into the category of the "best manager England never had". Talk of Clough provoked ready memories for O'Neill: "He left to go down to do the interview [for the England job] and we were all players at Nottingham Forest and honestly we didn't want him to get the job because he was going to leave us in the lurch. As it turns out he came back and won the European Cup twice after that. So we've got a long way to go."
O'Neill, who dismissed calls for quotas and claims that there were too many foreign players in the Premier League – "my view has always been if you are good enough you will make it through" – clearly does not want to leave Villa "in the lurch". It appears that only a continued groundswell of subtle lobbying may make him change his mind.
But there was also one thing that was clear amid the commitment and modesty – "I was given a chance last time round and clearly wasn't good enough," O'Neill said of his interview before McClaren's appointment – and that is his self-belief. One final question and, again, a hypothetical one: would he be any good as an England manager? "I think I'd be brilliant. I do too," O'Neill said, only a tiny bit in jest. "It's not particularly self-effacing but I do. My ego thinks I would be good at it and, actually, the rest of me thinks I would be brilliant at it as well."
Of all his proclamations yesterday maybe that's the one the FA should take most heed of.
Shilton solution Carson can draw on 1973 Wembley howler
Scott Carson is expected to keep his place for Aston Villa at Middlesbrough today despite his mid-week gaffe for England, although manager Martin O'Neill conceded that "psychologically it might take him a bit of time to recover". But O'Neill said yesterday that he thought Carson would emerge a better player from the harrowing experience and compared what happened to the error made by Peter Shilton when England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup.
"Peter Shilton made a mistake in 1973 against Poland and only turned out to be the best goalkeeper in the world after that," O'Neill said. "Scott Carson has a long way to go before he's considered anything like Peter Shilton but there's, I suppose, some sort of comfort in what happened to him."
O'Neill said he planned to speak to Carson after training yesterday to gauge his mood and added that the club's goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh had talked to the 22-year-old on Wednesday evening. "He was kind of philosophical," O'Neill said of Carson's mood. "I think he's incredibly young and I will be hoping that eventually this is something that's just part of his career. Now he'll be pretty down and he'll be low because England failed to qualify as much as about what happened. In the heat of all of this I'm sure that his great save to keep England in it in the second-half, at 2-1, will be forgotten. That's the way it goes in this game."
O'Neill said he was not considering resting Carson. "I'm sure that Scott's strong enough and wants to play the games," he said. "He's young, and especially young for a goalkeeper. I remember Pat Jennings when he signed from Watford for Tottenham Hotspur. For two seasons he was throwing them into the net. And he turned out to be one of the greatest goalkeepers who ever lived."
O'Neill said he did not want to get drawn into the debate over whether Carson should have been selected. "I don't think that is my call," he said. "I know it hasn't stopped Slaven Bilic from speaking. He speaks more about England than about Croatia."
'Bobby Charlton said that about me? Sir Bobby? You are joking'
Martin O'Neill was almost left speechless when he was told of the tribute paid to him in yesterday's Independent by Sir Bobby Charlton.
In promoting O'Neill's candidacy for the job of England's head coach, Sir Bobby compared O'Neill to some of the greatest managers in British football history. "O'Neill has a touch of something shared by football men such as Ramsey, Stein, Busby and Shankly," Sir Bobby wrote. "He has an authority, a belief in himself that he seems able to transfer to players."
When O'Neill was told of the assessment, this was his, word for word, reaction at yesterday's press conference: "Bobby Charlton said that? Sir Bobby? You are joking. Bobby Charlton said that about me? Well, that's me finished then. It's very, very kind. From Bobby? Are you sure? I'll have that framed. Honest? You've made my day. I wish you'd said that to me before the [media] interviews. Jesus. That's really super, nice. I'll be showing my daughters that."
Once he had recovered his composure O'Neill added of the comparison: "To get into that company I've got miles to go, miles to go. It's really nice of him to say it but ... well, that's really nice. Thank you."