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Clubs will be out to entice our Michael, says Craigan

By Steven Beacom

Former Northern Ireland hero Stephen Craigan believes that 2017 will be the year when clubs come calling for Michael O'Neill.

Craigan says he is "astounded" that there has not been greater interest in Northern Ireland boss O'Neill but feels that will change in the "near future" with ambitious clubs finally realising what a catch he would be.

O'Neill, who guided his team into the knockout stages of the Euro 2016 finals and has them well placed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, revealed in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph last month that he would speak to interested clubs but insisted that he was in no rush to leave his present role.

Ahead of the tournament in France, O'Neill signed a four-year extension with the Irish FA, worth a total of £2million in wages, with a compensation clause of £750,000 for the Association included in the deal should a club prise him away mid-contract.

While O'Neill was on the shortlist to replace Ronny Deila at Celtic, who ended up appointing Brendan Rodgers last summer, it is surprising that more clubs have not made it their goal to snap up the first manager in history to guide Northern Ireland to the European Championships.

Craigan, who won 54 caps and now coaches the Motherwell Under-20 squad, is confident the ex-Shamrock Rovers boss would be a big hit in club football, declaring that the 47-year-old's difficult first two years as an international boss illustrated how he could cope with tough times and then flourish.

"I'm astounded nobody has made a move for Michael," said Craigan.

"I would think he has had phone calls and interest from clubs, but if that hasn't happened there must be a lot of naive Chairmen or Directors of Football about because surely they should be considering going for Michael O'Neill.

"I'm not rushing him out of the Northern Ireland role because he is doing a terrific job, but somewhere along the line I expect him to move on to a club job and a club with lots of ambition where he can do something and push them on.

"He has proved himself both in good times and bad. I think when a manager goes through adversity that tells you a lot about them and in Michael's first two years as Northern Ireland manager he went through adversity.

"It would have been easy for Michael to walk away but he showed character and resilience to come back and build what he has built.

"Certainly clubs must be looking at him thinking he is what we need, someone to stabilise and then push the club on.

"I would think in the near future someone, somewhere will see a little sense and come in for him."

Craigan, who captained his country and starred in famous victories over England, Spain and Sweden at Windsor Park, has been suggested as a possible Northern Ireland boss in the future and has experience of the IFA coaching set-up having worked with the Northern Ireland Under-19 team.

Right now, though, he is enjoying coaching Motherwell's youngsters and his role as a critically acclaimed BT Sport pundit.

"Would I love to manage Northern Ireland one day? I think any proud Northern Irishman would say they'd love to. Whether that happens or not who knows. I'm sure there are lots of our ex-players who would love to do the job but it's not something I wake up thinking about," said Craigan, who is married to Elaine and dotes on their daughter Chloe.

"I'm very happy at the moment working at Motherwell and learning all about coaching and I really enjoy working with BT Sport. I have a good balance and get to spend time with my family which is important to me."

The 40-year-old says, like everyone from Northern Ireland, he was bewitched by his country's performances at the Euro 2016 finals and the continual development of the team under Michael O'Neill.

"I recently watched the BBC review on Northern Ireland at the Euro 2016 finals and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up the whole way through the show," he said.

"It was great hearing the boys that I had played with talking so passionately about the whole experience.

"I used to room with Aaron (Hughes) and many times he talked about what it would be like to play in a major tournament.

"I always thought if there was one guy who deserved it, it would be Aaron Hughes because he made more sacrifices than most, coming in at such a young age as an international, dedicating himself to his country for so long, playing when injured and it was fitting for him to play in a major tournament.

"Hearing the likes of Big G (Gareth McAuley), Steven Davis and Michael O'Neill talking about it really inspired me.

"Everything about the tournament for Northern Ireland was immense and now Windsor Park being full for every game is just fantastic.

"When I was playing we would be remembered for having good results in one-off games so to sustain the good form for a few years is phenomenal.

"People in Scotland want to talk about the team wherever I go, about the football, the Northern Ireland fans and the atmosphere. To see what the team are doing makes me very proud."

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