I feared my job was on the line, but now we're flying: Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill has admitted he feared for his job after the last World Cup qualifying campaign but now he's focused on guiding Northern Ireland to back to back major tournaments.
O'Neill was appointed Northern Ireland boss at the end of December 2011 but a disappointing World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign included shock defeats to Azerbaijan and Luxembourg and saw the team finish fifth in a group of six.
Ahead of tonight's home friendly with Croatia (7.45pm), O'Neill says he's relieved to leave those dark days behind him.
"It would have been easy for them (the players) to decide not to play or say this is the time to change the manager.
"You can't change the players at international level but the manager can be changed and the most important thing was we stuck together."
O'Neill was also quizzed on the Scotland job with Gordan Strachan's future in doubt but he added: "I don't think the fans should be worried.
"I haven't given a second thought to that at all, I'd rather not give a comment on that situation at the minute to be fair."
O’Neill’s response to the Scotland question doesn’t offer any clarity on the issue.
It could be interpreted as him refusing to rule himself out of the post, but the thought of him accepting that challenge seems far-fetched at the moment just as Northern Ireland are threatening to make it to another major tournament.
“Am I committed? I’m sitting here now, been out there preparing the team,” he added.
“I’ll be here for Norway, Russia’s nearly 18 months away. Let’s make sure we continue to do the job we’re doing.
“There’s someone in that job who I have a huge amount of respect for, who is a manager I played under. It’s probably the fact I live in Scotland is a bigger driving factor of that than anything else.”
Clubs in England and Scotland may have overlooked O’Neill up to now but at international level his record commands worldwide respect. After guiding Northern Ireland to the last 16 of the Euro 2016 finals in France, the World Cup 2018 dream is still alive and well with the team sitting second in Group C.
“When you take the job you just want to make it better,” he added. “It was difficult. The players were delighted that I got a level of success but I was equally delighted they got it as well.”
After batting away the link with the Scotland job, O’Neill was also asked about the threat of clubs recruiting members of his backroom team including his assistant Jimmy Nicholl and coach Austin MacPhee.
He added: “You can’t stop that. If people do well, you want them to progress. Austin’s been a great addition, Jimmy (Nicholl) and right through them all.
“Our sports science team is superb, we do things very well. We don’t have a huge staff, our staff is 11, some of the countries are 20 plus. We went through a tournament with that. There’s a strong relationship with backroom staff and players, that’s very positive. You can’t just keep people and not expect them to grow, their own careers may flourish.
“What’s down the line isn’t something I give a lot of thought to, football’s about the here and now.”