Michael O'Neill guaranteed warm Windsor reception - whatever the future holds
Euro 2020 Qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Netherlands (tonight, 7.45pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event & Football)
SO what will it be – the start of a long goodbye, or farewell for now?
Ahead of tonight’s crunch Euro 2020 qualifier against the Netherlands – a must-win game if Northern Ireland are to keep their slim automatic qualification hopes alive – and Tuesday’s final Group C game against Germany, nobody seems entirely sure of the nuts and bolts surrounding Michael O’Neill’s future involvement.
In the aftermath of his recent appointment as Stoke City manager, it was confirmed he will take charge of Northern Ireland up to and including the play-offs next March, provided they reach that stage.
Beyond that, and what would happen should they reach a second consecutive European Championships in-a-row, the picture is less clear.
There is a long road ahead to get anywhere near that stage and at yesterday’s pre-match press conference in Windsor Park, O’Neill wasn’t in the mood to look too far down the line.
“This is the start of an incredibly difficult double-header and while we have an outside chance of qualification, we will do everything we can to take it to the final game,” he said.
“If we don’t qualify through that route, then hopefully we have a play-off to look forward to in March. It’s not been any different from any other week.”
Asked whether he would be in charge for the play-offs, O’Neill responded: “That’s the plan at the minute.”
Asked what happens after that, the response had a familiar ring: “That’s the plan at the minute.”
Regardless of what the future holds, however, the Ballymena man is guaranteed a warm reception when he leads Northern Ireland out tonight.
It will be an emotional night as he stands on the sideline at Windsor Park for the final time, but O’Neill suggested the Northern Ireland support may not have seen the last of him just yet.
“Maybe I’m young enough that in the future I could come back?” he said.
“The thing for me is we have gone to a major championships, missed out on a World Cup unfairly and we’re in the running to try and qualify again for a major championship. That’s been done with brilliant application from the players.
“I’m very grateful for the job the IFA gave me, I didn’t anticipate doing it for eight years.
“I’m not one for big emotions. I’ll just try to prepare the team as well as we have done and I believe they are ready to play.
“The biggest thing is to try to get a result and take it to the last game.”