Belfast Telegraph

I thought my time was up but I have a job to finish, says O'Neill

 

By Graham Luney

In one of the most fascinating and revealing press conferences we have witnessed at Windsor Park in recent years, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill expanded on his reasons for remaining in the job and why fans shouldn't fear the future.

After months of uncertainty over O'Neill's future and escalating fears that senior players like Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and Aaron Hughes were ready to call it a day, the stunning progress achieved under the 48-year-old was in danger of coming to an abrupt halt.

When the Scottish FA were granted permission to hold talks with the former Shamrock Rovers boss the speculation gathered pace but after the Irish FA moved swiftly to offer O'Neill a six-year deal worth £700,000-a-year, it was going to take something special to prise him away.

In his discussions with the media yesterday it became clear there were a number of reasons why O'Neill rejected not only Scotland, but offers from clubs as well.

While his new deal runs until 2024, it remains to be seen if he will guide Northern Ireland through the next two European Championship campaigns and the qualifying series for the 2022 World Cup, which is to be held in Qatar.

There is a clause entitling the IFA to compensation if O'Neill moves on to a club job but for now the Ballymena man believes he has unfinished business with his country.

Yesterday he was bullish and optimistic about the future, but his emotions were very different after that play-off nightmare against Switzerland when the World Cup dream went up in smoke.

When asked if he felt that was the end of his time in charge of Northern Ireland, O'Neill stated: "I think that is natural. There was always that feeling because of the disappointment of missing out like we did.

"The biggest thing for me was did the players need that change or something different?

"I had good discussions with Jonny (Evans) and Steve (Davis) in particular and they certainly weren't of that mindset.

"That was a big factor. In international football you need the players onside. It's not like a club situation where you can change players and get rid of players.

"We can't do that so that was a major factor.

"When you have that type of relationship that you have with the players and they to a man were positive about me staying on, they were nice words to hear."

The Scottish FA identified O'Neill as their No.1 target after Gordon Strachan left his position in October, so how close was he to going to Scotland?

"It wasn't just a case of going to Scotland," he added.

"I had the opportunity to go to clubs as well. It was a bit of a dilemma regarding club football and if it was the right time to consider club football.

"Was it the right time to go to another Association? In relative terms I'm 48, I'm young as an international manager. I've six years' experience as an international manager. I have the experience of going to a major tournament.

"I just felt this job wasn't finished. It wasn't just a case of, 'I'll go there because I fancy that'.

"You have to look at your life as a whole and your family situation.

"All those things come into the equation and it was a difficult decision to make and having subsequently got my end around everything going forward I am 100% in my mind that I made the right decision."

As part of his new contract with the Irish FA, O'Neill will take up the role of Chief Football Officer and have overall responsibility for the development of the game and the Association's elite performance pathway.

"We have a few more players in the pipeline," said O'Neill.

"They have to be the right type and have to be better than what we have or offer us something we don't have in the squad. We are working very hard on it.

"Ian Baraclough is doing a great job with the Under-21s and hopefully three or four of those players can make the breakthrough as well."

Talks with the senior players will continue and O'Neill said he will respect any decision a player makes on his international future.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "I've told them not to make any quick decisions. There is no rush. If some of them want to take a short break from international football and review their situation that's fine as well.

"I want them to play for us as long as they can.

"Their club situation is a big factor as well, the age some of them are at, they are out of contract at the end of the season and don't know what lies ahead.

"Qualifying for the Euros doesn't start for another 13 months, so the Nations League is a nice thing to have and the focus will really be on the qualification when it starts next March.

"For those lads it is difficult to see where they will be in a year's time. Hopefully they are still at the clubs they are at but those are all things they'll have to consider.

"I'll never close the door on any of them.

"I've said that to them and discussions have been positive. As things develop, hopefully they will value playing on.

"It's like when I took the job Chris Baird took two games off international football and wanted to think about it and he came back and ultimately he was a very important player for us.

"I think deep down when they think about it they will think they would miss it and they certainly have another campaign in them."

Now that O'Neill has confirmed he's still committed to the cause, don't expect too many to close the curtain on their international careers.

Belfast Telegraph

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