Michael O'Neill back as NI boss with belief and sights set on Euro 2024

Back in charge: Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill back at Windsor Park after signing a lengthy contract. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Back in charge: Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill back at Windsor Park after signing a lengthy contract. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press Back in charge: Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill back at Windsor Park after signing a lengthy contract. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

POT luck has too often meant no luck for Northern Ireland but Michael O'Neill insists he would have returned to the managerial role even without the favourable draw for Euro 2024 qualifying.

The prodigal son isn't slicing up the fatted calf yet, far from it, but having Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, and San Marino as fellow members of Group H is far preferable to recent sections.

Yet O'Neill, who returns to the role after two-and-a-half years away, insists that wasn't a consideration:

"I wouldn't say it was a lure because if the job had been offered to me and we'd been in a different group, I'd still have taken the job. It wasn't a lure in that sense - but I was glad we weren't in a different group."

Northern Ireland topped a similar selection – of Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland, and the Faroe Islands - to famously qualify for Euro 2016, and even finished above the Czech Republic and Norway to seal a play-off spot for the 2018 World Cup.

That muscle memory gives O'Neill confidence that NI can make it to Germany in 2024, although that short-term gain is not the only aim for a man who has been handed a five-and-a-half year contract.

"It's not just about this next campaign, you have to look beyond that as well. It wasn't just a case of saying the draw was kind and we can qualify. It was more about the opportunity to build something again.

"It's funny, various clubs had approached me and spoken to the [Irish Football] Association; the Stoke one, had it came at a different time, I may not have taken it.

"We were in a difficult situation in our [Euro 2020 qualifying] group with Germany and Holland, and the timing of everything is important."

The timing of O'Neill's sacking from the Potters in late August was certainly fortuitous for the IFA, if not for Ian Baraclough.

O'Neill's successor was sacked in late October and, with the Ballymena man still available, he was the stand-out candidate, in the eyes of the IFA, the NI players, and the 'Green and White Army' of supporters.

The connection O'Neill had with the fans and his own national team, having been both player and manager, was a factor in his return too:

"I also felt that the feeling you have in club football, compared to the feeling you have in international football, is hugely different.

"Not just going to a major tournament again, because that's what you dream about, but just being back here and enjoying the job, being with the players again and building the squad was something I felt was too good an opportunity to turn down."

Of course, many will say 'Never go back', but O'Neill felt the time was right for him to return, even joking that me might leave and come back for a third spell as Louis van Gaal has done with the Netherlands:

"You can always talk about it is not a good time - but in a similar way to how people felt when I took the job initially, that I was too young and it wasn't the right time in my career, you never know when it will come around again.

"Someone else could have come into the job and been hugely successful so you might never get the opportunity. I was conscious that the Association wanted me to come back, their commitment to me was massive, which was a big thing as well, and I was only too happy to take up the reins again."

O'Neill also left the NI job on very good terms, so was the number one choice. Player and supporters – even the prickly elements of the media – made that clear, and he acknowledged:

"Of course that plays a factor. In football it is always nice when you are wanted, particularly when you have just left a job.

"I was probably eight weeks out of a job when the vacancy arose. I didn't anticipate leaving Stoke in August. It wasn't part of where we would be.

"We had a difficult pre-season and with anything like that there is a bit of hurt, to your confidence and other things, so when you have that positivity and opportunity to go into another job it's only natural that appeals to you. I just hope I can deliver."

Securing qualification to a major tournament for the first time in 30 years is why Michael O'Neill is revered by Northern Ireland fans, and he has the confidence that he can work the oracles again:

"That's the key and I believe that I can. A big thing for me was the conversations I had with the players. In 2018 I had a conversation with Steven [Davis] that was a big factor in me signing a new contract with the IFA as opposed to going to the SFA [Scottish].

"I turned down a couple of opportunities at that point in time as well. Throughout that period in those eight years there were opportunities to leave but when I did leave I felt it was the right time and I made those decisions on the right basis, in the same way that I have made this decision on the right basis to come back."

O'Neill points to how close NI came to reaching the 2018 World Cup, so he feels reaching Euro 2024 is entirely possible: "I do. In 2016 [after the Euros] everyone said you need to jump now and I actually didn't think it was the time to go.

"I felt the campaign for qualification in 2018 if anything was as good if not better as 2016 - to finish second in the group to Germany ahead of Norway and the Czech Republic, we had a brilliant campaign.

"Obviously we were aggrieved by what happened in the play-off [a controversial penalty sending Switzerland through] but the ability to go again from the players has proven to me they can do that - and a lot of those players are still here."

Belief and commitment are vital elements, concludes a recharged O'Neill: "What we have to make sure is that the players are focused and they believe, because that will be the big thing. When I go back to 2012 the biggest disappointment for me in my initial campaign was the availability of players; we only had Steven Davis and Roy Carroll that played in all 10 games.

"That changed considerably over the next three campaigns and that is the only way we can be successful. Sometimes players are injured and you can't do anything about that but if you have that availability and conviction from the players then you can challenge in any campaign."