Belfast Telegraph

Challenge at Stoke too good for O'Neill to reject

 

High point: Michael O’Neill is hoisted aloft by his NI players after qualification for Euro 2016
High point: Michael O’Neill is hoisted aloft by his NI players after qualification for Euro 2016
Michael O’Neill after taking the job in 2011

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland fans and players are digesting the news that the glorious Michael O'Neill era is coming to an end.

O'Neill will remain in charge for the last two Euro 2020 group games at home to Holland tomorrow week and then away to Germany in Frankfurt the following Tuesday but after that, it's an emotional farewell.

The former Shamrock Rovers boss has opted to return to the high-pressure environment of club football and the task is a sizeable one at Championship strugglers Stoke City.

The Potters, bottom of the table, are six points adrift of Championship survival and desperate for an astute manager to steer them to safety.

Like many appointments, it's a gamble for the 50-year-old O'Neill but the numbers add up as he will double his £750,000 salary at the IFA and pocket around £1.5m a year.

And it's a four-year contract which has proved too good to resist following Stoke's official approach to the Irish FA.

A compensation fee of around £650,000 will be agreed with the IFA, allowing O'Neill ­- who has a contract until 2024 ­- to bring his eight-year spell as Northern Ireland boss to an end.

Struggling City are seeking a successor to Nathan Jones, who was sacked on November 1 after just nine months in charge, and after being rebuffed in their pursuit of Preston boss Alex Neil, they viewed the Ballymena man as someone who could inspire a revival.

Northern Ireland fans will be gutted to lose one of the country's greatest ever managers, ­­someone who rewarded them with the unforgettable Euro 2016 journey which culminated in defeat to Wales at the last-16 stage in France.

Then a controversial refereeing decision proved decisive in a play-off against Switzerland, cruelly denying O'Neill and his men a place at the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.

O'Neill won 26 of his 70 matches in charge of the international side, a 37% win rate, and his competitive record is 18 wins from 46 matches.

But his biggest legacy is how he lifted a country out of the doldrums and put it back on the big stage. Supporters will have been anticipating such a development, with many surprised the former Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers boss wasn't snapped up by a club after the Euro 2016 success, Northern Ireland's first major tournament in 30 years.

Sunderland made a move for him in 2017 but O'Neill wasn't interested. He was also strongly linked with jobs at Middlesbrough and West Brom.

And he was unsuccessfully targeted by Scotland early last year.

It has been a difficult season so far for the Potters, who have fallen out of the Premier League and have won just two league matches in this campaign. However, they have a number of well-known players including Republic of Ireland international James McClean, who elected not to play for Northern Ireland.

O'Neill, who has been informed there will be money to spend in January, could be at Oakwell tomorrow for Stoke's game against the side immediately above them in the table, Barnsley. But his challenge is a significant one, as Stoke appoint a fifth manager in a little under two years.

It's terrible timing for the Irish FA with Northern Ireland currently third in their Euro 2020 qualifying group, three points behind Germany and the Netherlands. But it's a move which underlines how O'Neill still has the hunger for club management and, of course, money talks. While qualification from the group is unlikely, a play-off spot to reach the finals is on the horizon - but with a new manager in charge.

What a challenge that would be for the new man at the helm… pressure, what pressure? As the Irish FA will look to reduce costs, the new manager cannot expect O'Neill's salary of around £750,000. A figure of around £500,000 is more likely with a number of experienced managers likely to be interested in the role.

The Association would prefer a Northern Ireland man to take charge of the side or certainly play a key role in the backroom team. The Irish FA stated: "The Irish Football Association has been approached by EFL Championship club Stoke City, who are seeking permission to speak to Michael O'Neill about their vacant manager's position."

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