Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland fans set to bid a long farewell to Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland players celebrate with Michael O'Neill after qualifying for Euro 2016.
Photo Mark Marlow/Pacemaker Press

THE usual advice for ending a relationship is to 'make a clean break of it' but Northern Ireland fans will bid a long farewell to their beloved boss Michael O’Neill.

As expected, the 50-year-old confirmed yesterday that he would take on the task of turning around the fortunes of Championship table-proppers Stoke City.

However, in addition to over-seeing Northern Ireland’s remaining Euro 2020 Group C qualifiers later this month – at home to the Netherlands and away to Germany – O’Neill is also set to be in charge of any potential play-off game(s) next March.

The likelihood is that the Green and White Army will be going on their travels for any play-off semi-final due to the disappointing results in the inaugural Uefa Nations League.

However, victory in that match could lead to an emotional goodbye at Windsor Park if Northern Ireland were to secure home advantage for a play-off final. The draw for those play-off games will take place on Friday November 22 after the conclusion of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign proper.

The Irish FA were understandably reluctant to lose O’Neill after he guided the team to Euro 2016 and into a play-off against Switzerland for the 2018 World Cup but they appear to have made the best of the circumstances by negotiating O’Neill’s continued involvement for the rest of this convoluted European qualifying campaign.

IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson commented: “Naturally, we are extremely disappointed that Michael is leaving us, however we are delighted all parties have agreed Michael will be in charge of the Northern Ireland team for the games against Netherlands and Germany and potential Euro 2020 play-off matches in March.”

The governing body confirmed that O’Neill is leaving his role as manager of the Northern Ireland senior men’s international team and Chief Football Officer at the association.

He joined Stoke City as manager with immediate effect, taking training with the Potters yesterday morning ahead of today’s trip to take on fellow strugglers Barnsley.

However, the club and the Irish FA agreed that he will remain in charge of the Northern Ireland senior men’s team for the remaining two matches in UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying Group C and any Euro 2020 play-off matches in March 2020.

The Irish FA said that it was first approached by the EFL Championship club on Thursday night – although news of his imminent departure broke much earlier in the day.

Stoke asked for permission to speak to O’Neill about their vacant manager’s position, having parted company with Nathan Jones, and subsequently met compensation requirements in his contract which enabled them to enter talks.

Nelson said: “We reluctantly agreed to allow Stoke to talk to Michael after they met the compensation requirements. Michael has now agreed terms with the EFL Championship club…

“Everyone in the GAWA family is grateful for Michael’s inspirational contribution over the past eight years.

“After a difficult start to his managerial reign with Northern Ireland he honed an excellent squad and took us to the Round of 16 at Euro 2016, our first major tournament in 30 years.

“And, of course, he also took us to a play-off for World Cup Russia 2018 and the team have performed extremely well during the Euro 2020 qualification campaign.

“He has instilled incredible belief among our players and inspired countless young people to play football and aspire to play for Northern Ireland. He has also given our wonderful fans plenty to cheer about in recent years”.

The IFA has now bought itself time to select a successor to O’Neill – with his parting gift to the new man perhaps a place at Euro 2020.

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Football/Soccer