Football/Soccer

Michael O'Neill happy with decision to extend Northern Ireland contract

Michael O'Neill was happy to officially sign up until 2024 as Northern Ireland football manager.

MICHAEL O’Neill was laughing a few times during his media conference yesterday – but he insisted it wasn’t ‘all the way to the bank’, as the saying goes.

The 48-year-old rejected a suggestion that his improved, extended contract as Northern Ireland manager had increased the pressure to reach the Euro 2020 finals.

He’s also got the new role of CFO, but rather than Chief Financial Officer that stands for ‘Chief Football Officer’ and he insisted that in rejecting the Scotland job “the decision I made wasn’t a financial one.”

Asked if he felt under greater pressure to secure qualification again, he replied: “I don’t think so. The expectation is there now to qualify and I think it’s good the players feel that.

“When I took the job there was no expectation, really, and that’s the worst situation you can have as a player certainly. The players have changed that, they relish the expectation.

“Listen, that’s just a figure, and the decision I made wasn’t a financial one. Ultimately, the money in club football is greater than it is in international football.

“I’ve been offered opportunities to be better off financially in club football, before France and subsequently, after this campaign as well.

“It doesn’t put any added pressure on me. There’s a lot of security in the contract and that’s a nice position to be in.”

O’Neill chuckled when told that if he fulfilled his new contract up to 2024 he would match the 13-year tenure Billy Bingham had during his second spell in charge of Northern Ireland:

“Smoking a pipe as well,” quipped O’Neill. “To be in the job that length of time would be fantastic.

“The most important thing, however long you’re in a job, is that you leave it in a better position than you found it. That’s what I want to do.

“I want to ensure that whoever comes along after me they’re in a good position to work in. It was a difficult situation the national team was in when I took this job on. There was a lot of people felt maybe it was a job that wasn’t right for me at that stage of my career.”

O’Neill believes he can continue in the role for six more years, although the door remains open to his departure in several circumstances, he acknowledged:

“I don’t think it’s unrealistic, to be honest. That’ll depend on a number of factors – whether the Association still believe I’m the right person for the job, depends on whatever opportunities present themselves – there’s flexibility in the contract, I think we all know that.

“The focus is on the job, simple as that. Look at football now, every player, whether he signs an eight-year contract, there’s a release clause in it, that’s the nature of football now.

“My immediate focus is on March, then the summer. The Nations League is something I look forward to.

“We will have nine games before the Euro 2020 qualifiers kick off and we want to be in as strong a position as we can for that, and I genuinely feel we will be.”

One of those nine matches will be against the Republic of Ireland in a Dublin friendly this November, and O’Neill did not laugh off the prospect of a return fixture in Belfast:

“Well, first of all, you have to recognise the fact that both sets of fans were recognised in France for their behaviour. If they can go to France and get on OK, hopefully they can get on OK here.

“I think it’s a good for us, I genuinely do. The Nations League makes friendlies a little bit tricky at times, you don’t have a lot of options who you can play. Given we were both free it made common sense.

“We played them obviously behind closed doors [in June 2015] – we won 6-0 that day, so we did,” he said with a smile. “It’s a good game for Martin [O’Neill] as well.

The NI boss is content that he has made the right call in staying on – and confident that qualification for Euro 2020 can be achieved:

“Having made the decision I’m 100 per cent in my mind that it was the right decision…

“No manager comes with a guarantee of qualification and we don’t even know the draw yet, that’s a factor, but having gone through what we did in the last two campaigns, of course I am.

“We can certainly be in that position to go to the tournament. There are a number of factors still that we need.

“We need an injury-free campaign and we need our big players available. Everyone has been saying that the squad will get weaker. I think in 12 months’ time the squad will be stronger”.

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