Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill signs £2m deal and calls up Conor Washington and Michael Smith for Wales and Slovenia friendlies

By Laure James

Michael O'Neill took one look at Antonio Conte and couldn't wait to sign on the dotted line.

The Northern Ireland boss yesterday put pen to paper on a bumper new £2m four-year deal, as first revealed by the Belfast Telegraph last month.

O'Neill has been the subject of admiring eyes in England and Scotland since leading his country to the Euro 2016 finals but he was keen to commit his future to his current employers.

Italy boss Conte, who will be saying 'arrivederci' to the Azzurri after the Euros, is expected to be named as the new Chelsea manager in the coming days but O'Neill wanted to avoid a media scrum 'everywhere we go' ahead of the tournament this summer.

Conte avoided a Uefa engagement in Paris two weeks ago with speculation mounting over a move to Stamford Bridge. Not willing to become a distraction ahead of the clashes with Poland, Ukraine and World champions Germany, O'Neill has agreed to become the highest paid manager in Irish FA history on £500,000 per year.

He said yesterday: "Had I not signed a new contract, it would have meant an unsettling time for myself and the squad going into the Euros. There's always speculation, as with Italy manager Antonio Conte's situation, so I wanted stability in our situation.

"My focus is firmly on the finals and to ensure the players are totally focused, too.

"I didn't want to consider the contract until we had qualified and I was never in a situation where I was trying to link myself with clubs or other jobs. I had no approaches and made it known I was looking forward to the Euros."

It's not a concrete case of four more years, however, as there's a £750,000 compensation clause for the IFA in the event O'Neill is lured to a top job elsewhere. That golden goodbye, though, is far from anyone's mind with all focus on France.

O'Neill was speaking after announcing his 24-man squad for the friendlies against Wales (March 24) and Slovenia (March 28), which present the coach with a key opportunity in determining who makes the cut for France.

Both QPR striker Conor Washington and Peterborough defender Michael Smith will join up with the squad for the first time in Cardiff on Monday.

O'Neill said: "We've monitored Conor for 18 months and he's done very well. He's got brilliant pace, is very strong but his attitude is excellent. I've seen him score against Luton and Preston and thought he was impressive in both games.

"He's really, really hungry, his career's gone in an upward spiral recently and now he has the chance to play international football.

"He is really keen to get involved. When the time came for him to get his paperwork together he got it sorted without any issues. We had been talking to (QPR boss) Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink about Robbie Weir at Burton, but he spoke in admiration of Conor so it was no surprise he signed him."

While O'Neill has a huge dossier on Washington, Posh ace Smith is a different case.

"Smith's had four or five seasons in England and a lot of time in League Two with Bristol Rovers, but has made that step up to the division above successfully," continued O'Neill. "He's got good attributes, he's a good size, is very good on the ball and likes to get forward.

"Peterborough are actually a very good team and I enjoyed watching him in the two games I saw, I think he brings a lot of versatility and I always said the door is never shut on a player.

"It is important for us to give opportunities to these players. We've got Daniel Lafferty back in as well. Daniel was unfortunate with a shoulder injury which kept him out for a couple of months but (Burnley manager) Sean Dyche has recalled him from Oldham, because they want him around for their push for the Premier League."

Will Grigg, however, is a glaring omission having been a constant around the team and starting against Scotland in March last year, though not earning a single cap during the qualifying campaign.

O'Neill added: "We have five strikers other than Will and while he is scoring goals, it took him a little time to get going for Wigan and I feel he would be better playing at his club, and he understands that.

"The Easter period for clubs in League One and Two are very important, and a quarter of this squad are made up of players from those divisions.

"So instead of bringing six strikers, we let him stay. If players are going to miss games, they have to make the best of their time away."

Belfast Telegraph