Five pressing matters for Michael O'Neill as he remains as Northern Ireland manager
Michael O'Neill has knocked back Scotland's job offer and is staying put with Northern Ireland.
So what now? Here are five pressing matters than MON will be getting his teeth into right away.
1. Convince the old guard
Persuade senior players Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt, Jamie Ward and Aaron Hughes to postpone any retirement plans they have. At the age of 38, Hughes has made 109 appearances, making him the most capped Home Nations defender of all time — beyond Bobby Moore’s total of 108 — but has he got one more campaign in him? It appears unlikely but if anyone can persuade him to play on it’s O’Neill. McAuley (right), who is also 38, has got better with age but will a lack of game time at West Brom convince him to focus only on his club career? His team-mate Brunt is 33, while Ward is 31. O’Neill might not even need to convince them to shoulder on for the cause.
2. Sign the new contract
O’Neill has been offered a bumper six-year contract worth up to £750,000-per-year. Well done to the Irish FA for putting together a tempting offer which contributed to him rejecting Scotland. It was a tough call for the Ulsterman to make but sometimes it pays to go nowhere.
3. Develop the young talent
O’Neill has raised concerns about the standard of the Northern Ireland production line, questioning where the next heroes are coming from after this current golden generation move on. Paul Smyth, who scored on his Queens Park Rangers debut after moving from Linfield, and Jamal Lewis, who netted for Norwich City against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, are two to keep an eye on, while the emergence of English-born duo, 23-year-old Jordan Jones and George Saville, who is 24, has given O’Neill reasons to be hopeful.
4. Get Lafferty flying again
The Hearts frontman received plenty of support when he came clean about his gambling problems but questions have also surfaced around harmony in the squad and whether the Fermanagh man has fallen out with a few team-mates, or been late for team meetings. O’Neill needs all his men pulling in the same direction and showing the same commitment. Lafferty, as proven during Euro 2016 qualification, is a huge talent for Northern Ireland and can score vitally important goals. An in-form Lafferty is a huge asset to Northern Ireland.
5. Reassure the fans
The Green and White Army will breathe a collective sigh of relief but some fans were questioning O’Neill’s commitment to the cause when he met with the Scottish FA. The Scotland role was viewed by many as a sideways move and the manager should perhaps reiterate how honoured he is to manage his country.
Belfast Telegraph Digital