Belfast Telegraph

IFA chiefs close to end game in search for next Northern Ireland manager

By Steven Beacom

Almost there. The race to be the new Northern Ireland manager has reached the final lap.

And with interviews taking place this week, it appears to be a sprint to the finish between Jim Magilton, Iain Dowie and Michael O'Neill.

The Irish Football Association, led by President Jim Shaw, has a big decision to make.

With a losing streak of four games, the team sliding down the Fifa world rankings quicker than David Cameron's popularity in Europe and a difficult World Cup qualifying group including Portugal and Russia to come, plus the ongoing problem of defections to the Republic of Ireland, the powers that be must get it right.

In the past the IFA have sprung a few surprises such as Bryan Hamilton and Lawrie Sanchez being appointed ahead of Jimmy Nicholl. Then there was the “big name boss” Lawrie McMenemy, who turned out to be a big letdown. Could another shock be on the cards?

We should know by now never to take anything for granted with the suits at Windsor Avenue, but unless Sir Alex Ferguson suddenly declares himself ready for the task, our next boss will come from Magilton, Dowie or O'Neill.

The inside track from those who think they are in the know at the IFA, now that Gerry Armstrong, Dave Jones and the rest have been discarded, is that Magilton's the slight favourite ahead of Dowie with O'Neill a decent outside bet.

Next week O'Neill, who leaves the manager's job at Shamrock Rovers tomorrow night, will meet the IFA.

Today Magilton and Dowie will be interviewed. You can imagine those two old pals relishing the opportunity to put their plans for the future across.

Both were fine players for Northern Ireland. They can also talk a good game. In fact the three candidates kissed the blarney stone at some stage. That's why BBC NI and Sky Sports pay them as pundits.

The ideas they present in interview about how to inspire the current players, who underperformed under Nigel Worthington, and how to bring through the future players successfully will be crucial to the IFA's decision.

Shaw and co will also want to know how the defections to the Republic can be halted. Good luck with that one boys.

Once the candidates wade through that political quagmire, they might just hear this: “Oh, and there's one other thing, you know that £450,000 per year Nigel was getting, forget it, there's a recession going on, you know.”

Top whack this time around for a two-year contract may be £300,000 annually. The question is would all the candidates accept that?

If not we could have a situation whereby the best man didn't get the job, but the best value one did.

It would be interesting to see how the fans would react to that, though most of them are just happy that Worthington is no longer in charge.

Gary McAllister, spokesman for the Amalgamation of the Northern Ireland Supporters clubs, believes whoever is appointed has to be overflowing with passion for the post.

He said: “First and foremost, the Northern Ireland fans are looking for someone who is passionate and totally committed. There is no doubt that Nigel Worthington was a great servant as a player and people that I know have said he was Northern Ireland through and through but to the fans it didn't always come across that way.

“We want someone who really gets involved in the team and inspires the players to perform with passion and belief.

“We also need need someone who is focused on the bigger picture and not just the senior team.

“We need a boss who will look at our footballers from the schoolboys all the way to senior side and try to nurture that talent.

“We want a manager who can inspire belief in the players and not roll out a series of poor excuses when things go wrong,” he added.

“Lastly the issue of players from here opting to declare for the Republic of Ireland must be addressed and a manager with a knowledge of that issue and willing to try and help do something about it is what we would be looking for.”

The IFA are keen to finalise their decision before Christmas, though at this stage it's unlikely the official unveiling will be until next month with the first match for the new boss at Windsor Park against Norway in a friendly on February 29.

Men in the running to be new manager

Iain Dowie

Age: 46

International caps: 59 (12 goals)

Managerial career: Queens Park Rangers (caretaker 1998), Oldham Athletic (2002-2003), Crystal Palace (2003-2006), Charlton Athletic (2006), Coventry City (2007-2008), Queens Park Rangers (2008), Newcastle United assistant manager (2009), Hull City (2010).

Odds on being next Northern Ireland manager: 17-2

In terms of time spent in the dugout, Dowie is the most experienced man on the list of candidates for the Northern Ireland post.

His stock was high when Lawrie Sanchez took over from Sammy McIlroy, as the former Northern Ireland captain was on his way to the Premier League with Crystal Palace at the time, but while he would have been the fans’ choice, Dowie wasn’t interested in international management at the time.

Now heavily involved in television work since his last permanent managerial role finished three years ago, he is keen to lead Northern Ireland.

Another man who definitely knows what he’s talking about when it comes to football, being out of the scene since a short spell at Hull City last year is unlikely to do him any harm when it comes to attempting to persuade Irish FA chiefs that he’s the right man for the job.

Jim Magilton

Age: 42

International caps: 52 (5 goals)

Managerial career: Ipswich Town (2006-2009), Queens Park Rangers (2009)

Odds on being next Northern Ireland manager: 6-5

Like Dowie he has been out of work for the last couple of years, but the foundations of Queens Park Rangers’ run to the Premier League were laid by Magilton during his sixth months in charge and the club’s fans hailed the style of football their team played under him as the best since the Terry Venables era.

Ipswich Town were also left in a much better shape when he was sacked compared to when Magilton took over at Portman Road — and they were also much higher up the Championship table than they are now.

Is it a coincidence that Shamrock Rovers — under fellow contender Michael O’Neill — made the group stages of the Europa League after Magilton joined the coaching staff?

If the Irish FA are looking for someone to put his stamp on the grassroots level of the game as well as sorting out the international team then Magilton is the obvious choice. He has devoted a lot of time to coaching young players since leaving QPR. Ultimately he would be judged on the performances of the senior international team and he has the credentials and the playing experience to make a success of that job if he’s the man that the Irish FA choose as Nigel Worthington’s successor.

Michael O’Neill

Age: 42

International caps: 33 (7 goals)

Managerial career: Brechin City (2006-2008), Shamrock Rovers (2008-2011)

Odds on being the next Northern Ireland manager: 8-11

Current success is always good when you’re in the fight for a managerial job and having made history by taking Shamrock Rovers into the Europa League group stages O’Neill’s stock is high at present.

He’s also called time on his stint with the Tallaght outfit at just the right time for the Irish FA.

Despite that European adventure what might work against O’Neill is the fact that both of the clubs he has managed are effectively part-time outfits.

It was a surprise when Pat Fenlon beat O’Neill to the Hibs job, but it would be no shock if he is managing at a higher level in the New Year if someone else gets the Northern Ireland job ahead of him.

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