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It would be unfair for Northern Ireland to ask Michael O'Neill to stay on for Euro play-offs

 

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Michael O'Neill's club concerns will trump country loyalty now and that must be understood.

Michael O'Neill's club concerns will trump country loyalty now and that must be understood.

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Michael O'Neill's club concerns will trump country loyalty now and that must be understood.

There should no longer be any ambiguity, the Irish FA must do the honourable thing - release Michael O'Neill from the shackles of the Northern Ireland manager's role.

It gives me no pleasure in writing this. In fact, as a former player and proud supporter, I would much prefer Michael to be in charge for the Euro play-offs.

But in the current climate of uncertainty, when we don't know when it will be safe for football to return, it's unfair to ask him to continue with Northern Ireland.

Whether we like it or not, Michael's job is Stoke City manager.

That's where his focus is, his total commitment and his priority.

And if the season does eventually resume, he will still have a huge task on his hands making sure Stoke avoid the drop to League One.

Then if that is secured, there will be very little break ahead of the new season starting. He'll be wheeling and dealing in the transfer market to strengthen his playing squad, looking at different training methods he can introduce, player contracts and basically be totally immersed in the overall running of the club.

With the resources Stoke have, a wealthy family continuing to back them, I could see them returning to the Premier League within the next couple of years with Michael at the helm.

He hasn't gone there to manage in the Championship, he wants to be a Premier League boss and he views Stoke as the vehicle to drive him there.

Deep down, he'll not want any distractions, even from Northern Ireland.

In his squad announcement press conference, ahead of what was supposed to be the play-off against Bosnia last month, he stated that it was okay for him to be in charge for the game because the months of December, January and February were the quietest period for an international boss. But it wouldn't be possible if the games were in September, October and November due to his position at Stoke.

I know it was Michael who last November put forward the suggestion of him staying on for the March games, but these recent comments should now raise a red flag with the Irish FA and tell them Michael's time with Northern Ireland is over.

The coronavirus crisis has changed the sporting landscape and it has serious implications.

The Stoke job is just too big and demanding, especially during the autumn months, to tag the Northern Ireland gig along with it - and Michael knows this but I think he is hoping the Irish FA will make the decision for him.

Maybe the IFA are slightly naive when it comes to Michael's responsibilities with Stoke and the relentless nature of it.

He has built up an incredible legacy with Northern Ireland.

His tenure is one of the most successful in Irish FA history and I was immensely proud to be a part of that and he will not want it tarnished in any degree.

I would be greatly concerned he may suddenly feel backed into a corner by Northern Ireland, believing he has a duty to finish the job of the Euros. That shouldn't be the case. He's more than done his bit and I'm sure the fans would totally understand his situation.

I can't help but think this could leave a sour taste in his mouth regarding Northern Ireland.

Also, the international job is much more than selecting a squad and preparing for a game.

The relationship and communication between players and manager is vital, especially between international fixtures. Little words of support, advice and guidance can make all the difference to a player, especially someone struggling or who is trying to break into the first team at their clubs.

The manager can have a word with their club manager or coach and I know Michael did that on numerous occasions.

Also, with the financial issues, he may have to play a part in making sure that a player stays with a club in England and is not cut.

Obviously the Irish FA are saving plenty of money by not appointing a new manager just yet - Michael was only going to be paid for the games in March - and that is a good thing but maybe the Football Association of Ireland may have stolen a march on their counterparts in Belfast.

There is no longer any dispute over who their manager will be going forward.

Mick McCarthy has been dispensed with and the Stephen Kenny reign has started.

Kenny can begin the planning process for games in the autumn, he'll be in regular contact with his players, they'll know his thoughts on how they want to prepare and play.

When football does get back up and running, there is the possibility of Northern Ireland playing eight matches before the end of the year and the Bosnia game could be pushed back until November - so it wouldn't be feasible for Michael to take charge of both Stoke and Northern Ireland.

The Irish FA need to cut the ties, thank Michael for his service and seriously start the search for a new manager.

It's the only fair thing to do for Michael, the squad of players and the passionate Northern Ireland supporters.

Premier League players were always going to pay up to those in need

It didn’t surprise me that Premier League players came together this week to form their own charity so that they could make sure the money they raised went straight to the NHS frontline workers.

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Positive ideas: Jordan Henderson

Positive ideas: Jordan Henderson

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Positive ideas: Jordan Henderson

 

I’ve been saying for weeks the majority of them would be only too glad to make a sizeable contribution but they wanted to know where their cash was going.

Too often a player’s view is disregarded.

Take, for instance, when a player is fined by his club. More often than not, the player will ask for the fine to go to charity, but usually it just ends up in club funds.

Or when you have to go before the disciplinary committee in London. You would love any money you hand over to go to charity but you have no idea where it goes and then, to add insult to injury, you have to pay for all the travel expenses of the disciplinary committee members who have travelled to London for your case.

It’s also not uncommon for players to give willingly to club staff members and look after them but without the media spotlight thrust upon them.

Players know they are in a privileged position, earning lots of money, so of course human nature kicks in and they do offer financial assistance to canteen workers, cleaners and those in general admin.

The owners and those in charge of clubs are the people who should be taking the flak. They are the people who run these big organisations, and agree contracts and salaries.

The players, led by Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, have always wanted to help but they did the right thing making sure their voice was heard and that their money was going where it is needed — frontline NHS staff.

I knew Corry's desire would see him back as strong as ever

Corry Evans has proved what a brave and true warrior he is by returning in double-quick time from his horrific injury.

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Corry Evans

Corry Evans

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Corry Evans

 

The extent of his head injury — a fractured skull and shattered eye socket — from an accidental boot to the face while playing for Blackburn Rovers against Preston in January was shocking but, in typical Corry fashion, he has defied experts by returning sooner than expected.

There were even some doubts at the time over whether Corry would actually be able to compete in professional football ever again but, having played with him for many years with Northern Ireland, I knew his heart, desire and tenacity would see him come back as strong as ever.

He’s been cleared for full training and that’s remarkable considering the time frame involved and the fact he only underwent surgery in February.

There will obviously be a few niggling doubts before that full first proper challenge, whether a tackle or header, but Corry has that fierce determination to succeed and will not back down.

I think back to Iain Hulme, who suffered a similar horrific head injury while playing for Barnsley over a decade ago and he was able to come back and continue his career.

I look forward to seeing Corry play for Blackburn and Northern Ireland again when this coronavirus  crisis is over.

Belfast Telegraph