Belfast Telegraph

Jonny Evans insists Michael O'Neill is the right man to get Stoke up and running

Mutual respect: Michael O’Neill and Jonny Evans in training
Mutual respect: Michael O’Neill and Jonny Evans in training

By Graham Luney

Jonny Evans has backed miracle man Michael O'Neill to revive Stoke City's fortunes.

The Northern Ireland boss is already weaving his magic on the club scene again after inspiring Stoke's 4-2 win over fellow Championship strugglers Barnsley last Saturday.

Although his new role at the Potters will be time-consuming and demanding, the Irish FA hope to hold on to their man for as long as possible and at least for the rest of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.

It remains to be seen whether O'Neill can juggle club commitments and potential Euro 2020 play-off duties with his country, but for now the camp is saying it's business as usual.

Northern Ireland host the Netherlands on Saturday in what could be O'Neill's final home match in charge.

And their Group C campaign concludes against Germany in Frankfurt, with the play-offs next March looming on the horizon.

With Stoke bottom of the Championship and craving a return to the Premier League, O'Neill has his work cut out, but the man who guided Shamrock Rovers to two League of Ireland titles, a Setanta Cup and the group stages of the Europa League is relishing the challenge.

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"Having looked under the bonnet at Stoke and getting to know the owners, it's a very attractive job," he said.

"It's a big club that previously spent 10 straight years in the Premier League.

"I think they are the only club outside the top six and Everton to have achieved that.

"Whilst they're not in that position now, I think there's a lot of things in place to aspire to get back to that level."

Like his team-mates, Leicester City centre-back Evans isn't sure when O'Neill will let go of his Northern Ireland commitments but he is confident the Ballymena man will be a big success at Stoke.

"Yes. He's a very, very hard worker," said the former Manchester United favourite when asked if club football would suit O'Neill.

"There are so many things he does behind the scenes that people don't see.

"People have this image of international managers that they're only really working 10 days then they have another couple of months free but that's not the case.

"Michael has really involved himself in the whole organisation.

"He's having conversations with us at times which surprise us due to the depth that he's looking into things, how he's looking to improve everything as a whole.

"We all wish him good luck. I, for one, texted him on the Friday and said 'Good luck' - obviously when I heard the news that he was able to carry on with us it made that text a little bit easier!

"We're all pleased for him, I think everyone in Northern Ireland is - what he's done for us as players, a team, a country, it's fantastic.

"That move to club level in England is probably something he has always had in the back of his mind.

"When the right opportunity came we all knew that it was one he couldn't turn down."

O'Neill has brought Northern Ireland head scout Andy Cousins to Stoke and Blackpool's Jordan Thompson could be on his radar.

"The way football's going Stoke will have their own recruitment department looking at what they want to bring to the club," added Evans.

"I'm sure Michael will go in with an open mind.

"There may be one or two players he's looking at, but the squad that Stoke have is very big so it might actually be a case of trying to get some players out more than get players in."

While the timing of O'Neill's departure from the international stage is uncertain, it's clear he will be a hard act to follow.

"I think he is staying for the rest of the campaign," said the 31-year-old.

"He's here for the two games and then for a play-off, I think he's going to be there to the end.

"As far as I'm aware, I could be totally wrong, Michael is going to be in charge for the rest of the campaign.

"It's as simple as that, I don't think there are any sort of complications to it.

"Say we don't qualify, or we do qualify and he takes us there, once the tournament's over that will be the time he'll step aside.

"On the future, I think whenever something like this happens it gives a chance for another coach to come in, and that's something as players that we'll all be open to.

"We've been fortunate to have Michael for such a long time.

"When you look at the Germans and their manager's continuity, it just shows that if you keep that continuity it can create a really good vibe within the squad, and that's what we've been able to do.

"Hopefully the next manager that they bring in can be there for a long time also."

Former West Brom ace Evans accepts O'Neill has risen the bar with the international side, with regard to standards on and off the pitch, and it's vital that trend continues.

"Standards in football have been raised throughout the years, there are things now which didn't happen years ago, like sports science and things that everyone is looking into," he added.

"Michael showed us the way, that if we concentrate on all those little things it can really make a big difference to us, and that's something that we'll definitely be trying to carry on."

Northern Ireland winger Niall McGinn, meanwhile, has highlighted how O'Neill changed the mindset of the squad following his appointment during a difficult period.

"Michael's appointment was important because, despite the run of poor results, he made us competitive again and got us playing football at the right times," said the Aberdeen ace.

"Confidence grew and we started to do well in group campaigns and challenge for qualification, even reaching the Euro 2016 finals.

"Winning away from home in the Euros was crucial and huge confidence was gained from that campaign.

"We got so close to the World Cup finals and then started well in this campaign by winning the four games.

"It's been business as usual, and Michael has spoken to the players about the games."

Defeat by the Netherlands on Saturday would end Northern Ireland's hopes of automatic qualification if Germany beat Belarus in Monchengladbach.

But, unfortunately for O'Neill, the reality is there will be a major focus on his future, not simply the football.

"If there's one man who can deal with a being a club and international manager it's Michael," added McGinn.

"He's a top-drawer manager and he can do both jobs or the time being."

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