Belfast Telegraph

'I couldn't just walk out': Michael O'Neill explains why he's staying on with Northern Ireland for final Euro 2020 qualifiers

Michael O'Neill will remain in charge of Northern Ireland until March.
Michael O'Neill will remain in charge of Northern Ireland until March.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Michael O'Neill might have just begun the Stoke revolution in perfect fashion, but his sense of duty to his country was impacted not a jot by the experience.

After shepherding Stoke to a 4-2 win over Barnsley little over a day after taking the job, O'Neill mind was already on to Belfast, where he will soon return to have two more pops at world superpowers.

"In terms of the opposition, no disrespect to Barnsley, but I have to play Holland and Germany next week," he laughed.

It's a strange dichotomy that is coming into play because O'Neill refused to leave Northern Ireland in the lurch by moving into club management.

Not only will be see out the Euro 2020 qualification campaign this month, he'll also remain in charge for the March play-offs, in the highly likely event Northern Ireland are involved.

What if they qualify? Well that's anyone's guess.

"For stress levels (stepping down) probably would have been a smarter thing to do," he said, speaking from Barnsley's Oakwell stadium.

"It was important for me to finish this campaign with Northern Ireland. Players have given me everything for seven or eight years and I couldn’t just walk out before these two games.

"It’s not going to cause that much disruption to Stoke because we can’t really prepare for Wigan without players like Joe Allen and James McClean."

Having watched Stoke score four league goals for the first time in all-but four years to leapfrog their hosts and move off bottom spot in the Championship, O'Neill was his usual, measured self.

"We had to match (Barnsley's) desire - no-one has a God-given right to be in the Championship," he said.

"I'm obviously delighted with the result. It's one step in the right direction. It's very pleasing. It was a very good performance.

"Sam had a great performance and they were two great goals. His all-round game is excellent, hopefully the knock isn't too serious.

"In this third of the season, it is very important to get the three points. We showed a lot of quality today. The key was to make sure we got the result and the performance.

"They tested us to the max and they deserve a lot of credit for that."

Now onwards. From Barnsley to Belfast - the strange dichotomy of Michael O'Neill.

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