Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill: IFA chiefs have got their man at last

By Steven Beacom

Nigel Worthington stated his intention to leave the Northern Ireland manager's job on October 10, on the eve of his final game in charge, a predictable 3-0 defeat in Italy.

The Irish FA knew a month before though that Worthington's time was up and that the search for his successor was on.

The humiliating 4-1 Euro 2012 qualifying defeat on September 6 in Estonia saw to that.

The top dogs in the IFA had lost faith in the man from Ballymena, as had the fans who in Tallinn subjected Worthington to more verbal abuse than any of our previous international managers had suffered before.

More than three and a half months later, a successor to Worthington has not been revealed and IFA President Jim Shaw says an announcement is unlikely to come before the new year.

What is clear though after all the speculation and supposed big names in the frame, the powers that be have finally identified who they want to take over following interviews with former Northern Ireland players Jim Magilton, Iain Dowie and Michael O'Neill.

It has becoming increasingly likely that that man is O'Neill.

Shaw told the Belfast Telegraph that the IFA have been in touch with the successful candidate to start negotiations to finalise the appointment.

Sources close to Dowie and Magilton have told us they have not spoken to anyone from Windsor Avenue since the interviews, suggesting that 42-year-old O'Neill is being lined up to become our latest international team manager.

“The interviews have been finished and naturally we have got a successful candidate in mind,” said Shaw.

“The interview panel was given license to select the new manager and now we have to reach agreement. I haven't been in contact with the person myself, but the process to finalise the appointment has started,” he added.

O'Neill would represent quite a risk from the IFA, given that both Dowie and Magilton are more experienced in management terms and have also been in charge of Premier League teams.

Timing, however, is everything and right now O'Neill's star is shining brightly having won back-to-back League of Ireland titles with Shamrock Rovers and more impressively guided the Dublin outfit into the group stages of the Europa League.

Like Dowie and Magilton, O'Neill is said to have conducted a fine interview in front of President Shaw, IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson, Chairman of the IFA Executive Board Leslie Caul and board member Trevor Annon.

Also on the panel, in something of a surprise move revealed in this newspaper earlier this month, was ex-Northern Ireland defender turned BBC pundit John O'Neill, who played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals and won 39 caps.

The IFA chose O'Neill to act in an advisory role. It could be said that bringing him on board showed a lack of conviction amongst the big hitters at Windsor Avenue.

Shaw said: “We thought we needed someone with a background in the game as opposed to the rest of us who hadn't played at international level and had more of an administration background.

“We skirted around a few names and John came to the fore as a locally based man who had a vast knowledge of the game.”

O'Neill, to his credit, was one of the few in the media who questioned the tactics and team selection of Worthington, though he often pointed out that any Northern Ireland manager will be restricted by the quality of the players available to him.

You wonder now will O’Neill's criticism of the new boss be restricted in his role as pundit as he helped select him!

Far from being a silent partner during the interviews, it is understood that the former Leicester City defender asked several key questions to the candidates, who delivered power point presentations to outline why they should get the job.

The trio, who like O'Neill are respected media pundits, were then asked to discuss everything from assuring the commitment of existing big name stars to dealing with the defection of so many players from here to the Republic of Ireland.

All three felt they showcased themselves well, but ultimately two popular figures will be left disappointed.

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