Belfast Telegraph

I hope O'Neill stays so we can take Northern Ireland to more finals: assistant boss

By Graham Luney

The Scottish Football Association have made their move for Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill and are confident they will get their man.

The Scots are well aware that they will face competition for O'Neill's services from other nations such as the USA and clubs, including English Championship side Sunderland, who, like the SFA, have made an official approach to the Irish FA for the 48-year-old, but they believe their project will have greater appeal to the ex-Hibs and Dundee United star.

And that includes staying on as Northern Ireland boss despite the Irish FA putting together a package to not only increase his £500,000-per-year salary but also extend his contract by two years until 2022.

The Green and White Army are anxiously awaiting developments but they aren't alone as O'Neill's backroom team, including his assistant Jimmy Nicholl, are hoping the man in charge has staying power.

"I'm hoping Michael stays on and I've certainly got the hunger and desire to stay in my role but we are all waiting to see what his decision is," said Nicholl. "I believe the squad can qualify for a major tournament again and the senior players who may have been thinking of retiring can stay on and help us do that.

"Michael may look at new players coming in like Jordan Jones and George Saville and think we can enjoy more success. I've no idea what Michael's next move will be but it would be a massive blow if he left and I certainly believe that he can take Northern Ireland to another big tournament."

It was during the Euro 2016 finals that Scottish officials first started looking enviously at Northern Ireland and how O'Neill had revived his home country's fortunes, guiding them to a first major tournament since 1986.

Scotland were the only home nation who failed to qualify for France and questions were raised how O'Neill could deliver success for a smaller nation like Northern Ireland, yet Gordon Strachan was failing to bring the same joy to the Tartan Army.

Strachan, appointed by the SFA in 2013, survived a poor start to the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign to see out 10 group matches and finish third in the table but O'Neill's name was being linked to the post.

Once Strachan was sacked last month after not taking Scotland to their first World Cup since 1998, the SFA, led by Chief Executive Stewart Regan, decided O'Neill was their No.1 choice.

They couldn't move for the Edinburgh-based Open University graduate, however, until after Northern Ireland's World Cup play-off with Switzerland.

Regan and his fellow suits in Scotland were watching as Northern Ireland were eliminated in heartbreaking and controversial circumstances with the deciding goal coming from a penalty that shouldn't have been.

The SFA contacted the IFA yesterday to make an official approach.

Regan is leading the charge. He has been criticised in Scotland for some of his decision making in recent times and feels that persuading O'Neill to come on board would earn him some much needed kudos amongst others in the Scottish FA, the fans and the demanding media.

Scotland's desire to land O'Neill is such that they are willing to offer him a four-year deal that could be worth double his current wage with big bonuses for qualifying for major tournaments. The SFA are also prepared to listen to and act on his advice on how they move forward from the youth ranks through to the senior side.

While it is understood the SFA have told IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson there is no immediate rush in speaking to O'Neill, they would love to be in a position to make an announcement prior to the festive season.

O'Neill, astute, shrewd and now a legendary sporting figure in Northern Ireland, will weigh up his options.

Northern Ireland players, fans and the IFA are keen that he stays and has a shot at guiding the team to the Euro 2020 finals, but there is also an acceptance that if he chooses to move on he will do so with their gratitude.

He is a manager who likes time to build. It is telling that the Scottish FA feel they can provide him with that opportunity more than clubs in England or Scotland, where Rangers are keeping an eye on developments.

Regarding club management, O'Neill has always said he would like a stable environment which raises questions about Sunderland. On the upside, the only way is up for the north east outfit.

Yesterday, O'Neill became one of the hottest properties in football. It came exactly 22 years on from his finest match in a green shirt when he scored twice in a 5-3 victory over Austria at Windsor Park, yet as an international player he'll tell you he never lived up to his full potential. As a manager he has been magnificent. It's no wonder so many want him as their leader.

Belfast Telegraph

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