Belfast Telegraph

I was afraid Scotland would lure O'Neill away, says Northern Ireland assistant Nicholl

 

By Graham Luney

Jimmy Nicholl has admitted he feared Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland reign was over when Scotland tabled a tempting offer.

O'Neill's right-hand man was left wondering whether his time with the squad was coming to an end while the 48-year-old made the biggest call of his career.

Ever since Gordon Strachan was axed as Scotland boss in October, the former Shamrock Rovers chief was linked with the role and there wasn't a definite no from O'Neill until yesterday when he said: "Having given the matter a great deal of thought and consideration, I have decided not to take up the opportunity to become the next Scotland national team manager."

Scottish FA chiefs were hopeful an offer of £600,000-per-year plus add-ons could get their man but the Irish FA's bumper six-year contract worth up to £750,000-per-year and running until 2024 proved too good to reject and that deal, which is at an advanced stage, will be signed in the next few days.

Nicholl, who is now assistant manager at Rangers, has been O'Neill's trusted lieutenant since 2015 and he's relieved the Ballymena man has resisted Scotland's advances.

"It's brilliant news," said the 61-year-old who played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and won 73 caps for his country. "His future was in the air for a long time and I'm sure a lot of people are relieved it's been decided. Michael is his own man and he's got his own thoughts, he didn't ask for my advice. It was his call to make and he's made it.

"The longer it went on with no decision being taken, people, including myself, were wondering what he was going to do and getting concerned.

"The Scottish FA seemed to be confident they had a chance of getting Michael so it's great news for the squad that he has decided to turn them down.

"I did have concerns he would leave, that's only natural and when you're involved in the backroom set-up it's a possibility my future with the squad could change.

"A new manager would have brought his own people with him. That's the way football works and I've been in the game long enough to understand that. It would have been a blow to me if that had happened as I've enjoyed great times with the squad and hopefully we can enjoy more successful moments.

"I'll stay on as long as I can and as long as I'm wanted. I've got the appetite to hopefully help us make it to another Euros."

In his short statement yesterday, Edinburgh-based O'Neill added: "It is a huge honour to be offered the position, however I do not feel that this is the right opportunity for me at this moment in my career. I would like to place on record my gratitude to the SFA for the very professional manner in which they conducted negotiations and I would also like to wish them every success for the future."

Northern Ireland struggled in O'Neill's early days but the Irish FA stood by their man and reaped rich reward.

O'Neill guided his country to the knockout stages of Euro 2016 and came agonisingly close to making it back-to-back major tournaments for the first time in Northern Ireland's history.

A 1-0 aggregate defeat to Switzerland saw them fall at the final hurdle in their bid to reach a first World Cup since 1986.

After finishing runner-up behind Germany in qualifying Group C, there was optimism the Swiss could be stunned in a play-off but a controversial penalty call made by Ovidiu Hategan shattered the dream.

Players including Northern Ireland captain and Southampton midfielder Steven Davis and veteran defender Aaron Hughes - the only two Northern Irishmen to make 300 Premier League appearances after the Saints game on Sunday - expressed hope that their international boss would stay and his departure would have sparked concerns surrounding the future of senior members of the squad.

Nicholl added: "We've got a few senior players there in Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and Aaron Hughes who are possibly considering their international futures.

"I'm sure Michael will chat to the lads to get their thoughts and the manager staying on may influence them to stay on board.

"We've qualified for one major tournament and just missed out on another so hopefully we can keep the momentum going and the squad will become even stronger. The boys are hungry and they've got all that valuable experience behind them."

Belfast Telegraph

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