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Irish FA were never close to axing Michael O'Neill, says former chief Shaw

 

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Golden chapter: then Irish FA president Jim Shaw (right) and chief executive Patrick Nelson (left) welcome Michael O'Neill to the Northern Ireland job

Golden chapter: then Irish FA president Jim Shaw (right) and chief executive Patrick Nelson (left) welcome Michael O'Neill to the Northern Ireland job

Jim Shaw with O'Neill arriving in Lyon in 2016

Jim Shaw with O'Neill arriving in Lyon in 2016

�William Cherry / Presseye

Golden chapter: then Irish FA president Jim Shaw (right) and chief executive Patrick Nelson (left) welcome Michael O'Neill to the Northern Ireland job

The Irish Football Association were never close to cutting short Michael O'Neill's reign as Northern Ireland manager, says former president Jim Shaw.

Shaw was president when O'Neill was asked to pick up the baton following Nigel Worthington's departure in 2011.

Although the former Shamrock Rovers chief left the international stage for Stoke this month as one of his country's greatest ever managers after steering his men to the knockout stages of Euro 2016 in France and to a World Cup 2018 play-off, the outlook was much bleaker at the start of his reign with just one victory in 18 games and that embarrassing 3-2 defeat in Luxembourg in 2013.

The Irish FA could have axed the rookie boss but they witnessed a masterplan taking shape behind the scenes and their decision to keep the faith was handsomely rewarded.

Irish FA Foundation chairman Shaw, who handed over the presidential duties to David Martin after the unforgettable Euro 2016 campaign, maintains O'Neill's future as Northern Ireland manager was never under threat.

"The answer is no, the Association was never close to letting Michael go. He was definitely getting a second term after the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign," insisted Shaw. "We didn't get a flood of people disagreeing with the IFA's decision to keep Michael after two years which would imply that the supporters could see what he was doing.

"Supporters can be critical if they lose hope but we didn't see that. The fans didn't turn on Michael or us. The early period of Michael's reign was the critical period and he had to steady the ship. He did that and also turned it around." Shaw says he has always believed managers should be given time to turn the tide and it became clear the players bought into O'Neill's vision and philosophy.

"I felt with an international manager you had to give him more than two years," he added. "More than simply one term unless something disastrous goes wrong.

"Far too many managers are gone within a year because they haven't won a match in their early spell but they could become great managers given time. You don't change players' attitudes instantly. Michael got the players behind him and they stuck with him ever since.

"Managers get judged on results but we could see what Michael was doing behind the scenes and you also noticed a change in the style to suit the players. Those players took us to the Euro 2016 finals.

"In 2014 we went on a summer tour to South America where we played Uruguay and Chile and things turned from there, we won in Hungary in the Euro qualifiers and kept winning.

"Michael's focus and hard work centred around the international team. Only later on came the bigger picture and the development of football within the IFA and Northern Ireland."

Many are now saluting O'Neill as our greatest manager but Shaw added: "It's a difficult one to compare Michael to other Northern Ireland managers because they were different eras.

"You look at 1958 with Peter Doherty and Billy Bingham in the 1980s, two World Cup finals. I remember the win in Spain and our side was full of English First Division players apart from Tommy Cassidy who was with Burnley. So you had 10 players from England's top flight. Michael was a great coach and man manager. All of them were outstanding managers for Northern Ireland."

Belfast Telegraph