Belfast Telegraph

I will never walk away, says Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

O'Neill reassures supporters that he won't follow Sanchez's lead and quit

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is starting to make football people across the water sit up and take notice.

After his side defeated Greece 2-0 in Athens last month to create history and move clear at the top of their Euro 2016 qualifying group, he was being lauded on Sky Sports and national radio. Even some English newspapers gave the success decent coverage rather than the usual four paragraphs buried in the corner of a page.

That increased publicity will not have been overlooked by club owners and chairmen always hunting for managerial talent.

One day O'Neill will decide to dip his toe into the unsettled waters of club management in England or Scotland, but the good news for the Green and White Army is that right now the 45-year-old is happier than he has ever been in charge of Northern Ireland and is intent on inspiring the team to the Euro 2016 finals in France.

The manager's mood is not completely down to recent results, like winning the opening three qualifiers in this campaign, a feat never achieved by a Northern Ireland team before.

He seems just as content with the coaching structure he has implemented with former internationals such as Jim Magilton, Stephen Robinson and Stephen Craigan working with the nation's gifted youngsters to hopefully ensure the future will be as bright as the present.

Three games into this campaign, Northern Ireland top Group F having beaten Hungary and Greece away and the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park.

The top two qualify for the finals with the third placed team guaranteed at least a play-off. The dream is on.

Just as it was seven years ago when Northern Ireland topped their Euro 2008 qualifying group. Midway through that campaign then manager Lawrie Sanchez walked out on the Irish FA to take charge of Fulham, and although under Nigel Worthington the team won a couple of times in their remaining matches, defeats in Latvia and Iceland undermined the qualification bid.

The fans were left wondering what might have been...

They won't wonder this time because O'Neill is staying to see the job through.

Asked by the Belfast Telegraph, at yesterday's press conference to unveil his squad for next Friday's qualifier in Romania, what he would do if a club offer came along, O'Neill said: "That's not remotely in my mind at this point in time. The main thing for me is to give ourselves the best chance of qualification. That is the only focus I have. I haven't drifted away from that and have spent my time between the games continuing to watch the players and the longer term thing is building on what we have done.

"If I'm honest in the last 12 to 18 months the job has been a lot more enjoyable, predominantly because of working with the likes of Stephen Robinson, Stephen Craigan and Jim Magilton at the under age levels.

"Last Friday I was at the under 16s game and it was great to see our kids beat Scotland. There is a lot of good stuff being done at that level and I enjoy being involved in that and having an input.

"In my time as manager there has been a massive transition in the squad. The second game I attended as Northern Ireland manager was an under-21 game in Macedonia and six players from that squad are today in the senior squad. This is now very much my squad and these are my players."

He added that seeing his former Northern Ireland assistant boss Billy McKinlay last only eight days as manager of Watford was another reason for staying in the international scene.

"If anything would put you off club football it would be what happened to Billy, so I'm happy enough where I am at this moment in time," said O'Neill, who, as revealed in this newspaper last month, will be offered an extension to his existing contract by the Irish FA next year.

In Romania next Friday, O'Neill will deploy the same counter attacking tactics that were successful in Hungary and Greece meaning that Kyle Lafferty, scorer of three goals in this campaign, will be a key figure.

"It will be a difficult game in Romania but like in Greece I genuinely believe we are capable of going there and getting something," said O'Neill.

"This game is not a free hit but having two wins away from home already means we have everything to gain. It won't be the end of the world if we lose but if we take something from it we really are in a fantastic position. The real massive games in this campaign will be our next two at home to Finland and Romania."

Despite the brilliant start, O'Neill has not revised his target of a top three place.

He says: "The last campaign taught me how fragile international football is and the fine line between having momentum and points on the board and not.

"Winning our first three games and creating that history was an achievement of sorts. Ultimately though it will only be an achievement if we get qualification at the end of it."

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