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Don't write off O'Neill serving up another miracle


High point: Michael O’Neill celebrates NI’s second goal against Ukraine at Euro 2016
High point: Michael O’Neill celebrates NI’s second goal against Ukraine at Euro 2016
Kyle Lafferty after strike against Hungary
O'Neill with Joachim Low

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill has gone to take charge of Stoke City. Yet at the same time he is staying to manage Northern Ireland. Well, until March. At least. Should his country qualify for the Euro 2020 finals, O'Neill will continue the double jobbing until the summer.

It is an extraordinary situation and quite unique in today's game.

What it illustrates is how much Stoke wanted the 50-year-old by agreeing to such an unlikely scenario in order for O'Neill to move to the bet365 Stadium.

Not only are they willing to let O'Neill remain as Northern Ireland boss for the upcoming final group games versus the Netherlands and Germany, they are content to let him keep going next year as well.

O'Neill made it clear he didn't want to leave Northern Ireland with a campaign ongoing and qualification hopes up in the air. Stoke's stance means he doesn't have to.

Had O'Neill been in charge of Brexit, all that would be sorted by now.

The former Coleraine, Newcastle, Dundee United, Hibs and Glentoran player has agreed a three-and-a-half-year contract with the club who are bottom of the Championship. He takes over from Nathan Jones, who was sacked earlier this month.

O'Neill will earn £1.5m per year, which is double his salary with Northern Ireland in his dual role as manager and Chief Football Officer.

How he will deliver in both posts remains to be seen but O'Neill has already shown, where he is concerned, anything is possible.

He guided Shamrock Rovers into the group stages of the Europa League and following a desperate start as Northern Ireland boss he inspired his home country to their first major tournament in 30 years.

Memories of the Euro 2016 finals continue to give the Green and White Army a warm glow.

The dream ticket for O'Neill would be to leave the post permanently having seen his Euro 2020 vision turned into reality.

Having announced his squad on Wednesday afternoon for the Netherlands and Germany matches, the Irish FA were approached by Stoke that night asking to speak to O'Neill about their vacant manager's position.

Stoke subsequently met compensation requirements in O'Neill's contract which enabled them to enter talks.

By Thursday the deal was done. Ahead of today's crucial Championship clash at Barnsley, O'Neill took training at Stoke yesterday before any official announcements were made.

An IFA statement read: "Michael will join Stoke City as manager with immediate effect, however the club and the Irish FA have agreed that he will remain in charge of the Northern Ireland senior men's team for the remaining two matches in Uefa Euro 2020 Qualifying Group C and any Euro 2020 play-off matches in March 2020."

Chief executive Patrick Nelson added: "We reluctantly agreed to allow Stoke to talk to Michael after they met the compensation requirements. Michael has now agreed terms with the EFL Championship club.

"Naturally, we are extremely disappointed that Michael is leaving us, however we are delighted all parties have agreed Michael will be in charge of the Northern Ireland team for the games against Netherlands and Germany and potential Euro 2020 play-off matches in March.

"Everyone in the GAWA family is grateful for Michael's inspirational contribution over the past eight years. After a difficult start to his managerial reign with Northern Ireland he honed an excellent squad and took us to the round-of-16 at Euro 2016, our first major tournament in 30 years.

"And, of course, he also took us to a play-off for World Cup Russia 2018 and the team have performed extremely well during the Euro 2020 qualification campaign.

"He has instilled incredible belief among our players and inspired countless young people to play football and aspire to play for Northern Ireland. He has also given our wonderful fans plenty to cheer about in recent years."

Yesterday, O'Neill spoke to the Stoke City website about the challenge ahead and his desire to hit the ground running. He will hope to lift a previously out of sorts group of players to a morale-boosting victory. They are six points from safety having won just two league games out of 15.

From club duty it will be to country, with the Northern Ireland squad assembling on Monday for next Saturday's Windsor Park qualifier with the Netherlands before facing Germany in Frankfurt three days later. Then O'Neill will be back with Stoke for his first home match against Wigan.

Ironically, Stoke's final game before the Euro 2020 play-offs is away to Wigan on March 22.

The play-off semi-final, which Northern Ireland are almost certain to be involved in barring miracle results against the Dutch and Germans, takes place on March 26 and the final on March 31. Stoke host Barnsley on April 4.

By then, O'Neill is confident Stoke will be out of relegation trouble.

They have the squad to do it. Reaching the top flight will surely be O'Neill's aim for next season.

Euro 2020 qualification and a 2021 Premier League promotion double? It's Michael O'Neill.

Don't rule it out.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph