Belfast Telegraph

Emotional pull of Northern Ireland job will never be topped: O'Neill

Michael says he'd find it tough to lead another country

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill has admitted that any job he does in the future will never have the emotional attachment that he experiences in his role as Northern Ireland manager.

In a special interview marking what has been another incredible year for O'Neill, the Northern Ireland boss spoke about what lies ahead for the international side, his own future and even what he would like for Christmas.

In 2016, Northern Ireland, under the inspirational 47-year-old, played in the Euro finals for the first time, progressed to the last 16 of that tournament and put themselves in prime position to earn a play-off match to reach the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018.

With every passing month, O'Neill's standing as a manager grew. Many pundits have been surprised that he has not already moved to a top club. Recently, former Spurs and West Ham boss Harry Redknapp declared O'Neill was the best young British manager around.

The IFA know that a time will come when they are approached for his services. In March, the ex-Shamrock Rovers boss signed a new four-year deal with the Association, worth £2m. As part of the package, the contract states that any interested club would have to pay the IFA £750,000 in compensation to release O'Neill from his current deal, though there are suggestions that figure could be negotiated.

"I committed to the IFA with a new deal earlier this year and I believe we both have a good understanding of that commitment," said O'Neill, speaking at the Philips Manager of the Year function in Dublin where Dundalk's Stephen Kenny won the overall award.

"If the situation arose the IFA would be well compensated and it would have to be the right opportunity for me.

"If it came up I would look at a club job on its merits but I'm not out there chasing my next job. Other managers and pundits have asked why I have not gone into club management and said I should have an opportunity, but I'm not actively seeking another job.

"I could have been a club manager for longer and had the ambition to manage my country. I've been fortunate that I was given that job at 42 and I know that whatever job I go to, if and when I leave Northern Ireland, it will probably never have the same emotional pull that I have for the Northern Ireland job because to have played for your country and to manage your country is a pretty special thing."

Asked about the praise he attracts, O'Neill, who started his managerial career at Brechin City, said: "People look at the situation and I'm still a relatively young manager, we have had a lot of success and my career has had an upward trajectory in terms of working from the bottom level to where we have got to with Northern Ireland."

Edinburgh-based O'Neill had been heavily linked with the Scotland manager's job, before the Scottish FA announced that Gordon Strachan would be staying. The Ballymena man suggests, however, that he would find it tough being boss of another country.

"I genuinely think it is difficult for a non-national to manage a country," stated the former Newcastle and Dundee United midfielder, who won 31 caps. "I think that would be hard, but football is football and we see it all the time and whatever happens down the road I have to make sure I am prepared for it.

"Right now my focus isn't going any further than the World Cup and giving it my all so we have our best shot at trying to get to the finals."

Reflecting on 2016, he said: "This has been a fabulous year for Northern Ireland. To have the experience of reaching the knockout stages at Euro 2016 was incredible.

"Going into the World Cup qualifiers was another challenge, but the fact we are sitting second in our group with a realistic chance of getting a play-off position, we couldn't have asked for any more.

"The performances from this Northern Ireland squad have been consistently high in the last few years and we have to keep it at that level."

Asked if the side can improve, O'Neill said: "That's a big challenge for us. We don't have players knocking on the door to come into the squad. We are having to almost develop players on the international stage which is very difficult.

"There is no better example of that than Josh Magennis who is now a real threat at international level. We saw that in the Azerbaijan game when we won 4-0 and Josh was excellent.

"It will be tricky for us to get better. I think our strength will always be what we have in the squad in terms of the spirit and preparation. What we don't have is an outstanding young player who can step into our team and improve us so it will be very much the collective in the foreseeable future."

As for the Christmas present he wants, you may not be surprised that there is a sporting theme.

Smiling, he said: "I want my wife to book me flights to Vegas for the Carl Frampton fight. I was at Carl's first fight with Leo Santa Cruz in New York in July. That was a great experience and I'd love to see the re-match with Carl hopefully winning again."

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