Belfast Telegraph

O'Neill facing a tough battle as Stoke make Flores first choice

 

By Robert Jones

Espanyol and former Watford boss Quique Sanchez Flores is Stoke's preferred choice to succeed Mark Hughes, but Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill remains in contention.

A Stoke delegation met Flores in Barcelona on Wednesday, and if he turns down the offer, the door will open for Ulsterman O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane.

Flores is under contract with the La Liga side until 2019, but has a release clause in his deal.

The Potters sacked boss Hughes last weekend after the 2-1 FA Cup loss at League Two Coventry, which followed a run of seven losses in 10 Premier League games.

The 18th-placed Staffordshire outfit were interested in Derby manager Gary Rowett until he signed a new contract with the Rams on Tuesday.

Flores' one season in English football to date saw him guide Watford to a 13th-placed Premier League finish in 2015-16, with the Hornets also reaching the FA Cup semi-finals.

The 52-year-old Spaniard then took charge at Espanyol in the summer of 2016 on a three-year deal, and they finished eighth in La Liga last term.

O'Neill and his coaching team agreed contract extensions with the Football Association of Ireland last October.

But the 65-year-old said after the Republic lost their World Cup qualifying play-off the following month that he would need to have "a real think" about his future, and still nothing has been signed.

Since the departure of Hughes and his assistant Mark Bowen, first-team coach Eddie Niedzwiecki has been in temporary charge at Stoke, taking training ahead of Monday's league clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Niedzwiecki has been assisted by Under-18s boss Kevin Russell, who faced the media at a press conference yesterday.

Russell said: "It's been a bit difficult with a manager gone who is really well-respected in the club.

"It was a matter of picking them up on Monday a little bit - there are players who were hurting, and rightly so.

"But as the week has gone on, we all know football - it's just a matter now of getting on with it and trying to prepare for the new manager coming in, making sure the players are in the right frame of mind. It was difficult at first but they have picked up over the last couple of days.

"Eddie's in charge and I'm just helping him out. I don't think there is a timescale on it. Obviously the owners want to make sure it's the right person.

"It's just a matter of us trying to make sure the lads are prepared, organised and ready to go."

Defenders Erik Pieters and Bruno Martins Indi, sidelined of late by hamstring and groin injuries respectively, could be available for selection for Monday having returned to training this week.

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