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Full Time

Michael O'Neill impresses in talks but Scottish FA rate chances of stealing Northern Ireland boss as 50:50

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill is ready to make the biggest decision of his career with Northern Ireland still in a strong position to keep him and Scotland only '50-50' despite him holding 'productive' talks with the Scottish Football Association yesterday.

The Northern Ireland boss was true to form in his discussions with SFA bigwigs, impressing them with his depth of knowledge of the Scottish scene at club and international level.

O'Neill was extremely well prepared for the meeting with the SFA delegation when both parties spoke at length about the Scotland manager's job and football in the country.

The feeling for the SFA coming out of the discussions was that they wanted him even more than before they began, but sources close to the talks believe Scotland's chances of sealing a deal are '50-50', in contrast to the Irish FA who remain confident O'Neill will stay.

O'Neill's attention to detail is legendary in Northern Ireland, who he guided to the Euro 2016 finals, and it was the same yesterday as he outlined what he felt would be the way forward for the Scottish game while at the same time asking the SFA how they saw the future.

It was decided after the talks that both parties would reflect on the meeting and then O'Neill would make his decision to either stay with Northern Ireland or move to Scotland.

Neither the IFA or SFA have given O'Neill a deadline, but both would prefer him to make a decision before the Uefa Nations League draw next Wednesday.

The IFA believe O'Neill will stay with them and agree to a new six-year contract, taking him through to 2024 and worth over £4m. Within that deal is the opportunity for O'Neill to have a major say on how youth football will be developed here.

That was a key element of yesterday's meeting in Scotland with SFA officials, who made O'Neill their No.1 target after sacking Gordon Strachan in October after he failed to make the World Cup play-offs, a feat O'Neill achieved with Northern Ireland before his side lost to Switzerland. The Scots are likely to offer a four-year deal worth £600,000-per-year with a massive bonus should he take them to their first finals since 1998.

Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson, who assisted O'Neill during Euro 2016 and the qualifying campaign, said: "We only have four or five top-level players, so what he has achieved is phenomenal. Outside of Northern Ireland, I am not sure he gets the credit he deserves.

"If I am sitting on an international board, he is the first person I am going to look at. He has produced minor miracles."

O'Neill has expressed concerns about the condition of Northern Ireland's production line, but Jamal Lewis' performance for Norwich City against Chelsea this week was another major plus.

A few weeks after former Linfield hero Paul Smyth scored on his debut for Queens Park Rangers, his Northern Ireland Under-21 team-mate picked the 93rd minute of an FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge to bag his first ever senior goal.

With many of the Northern Ireland squad's key men now in their 30s, there have been concerns raised over an ageing squad. West Brom duo Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt, along with Hearts defender Aaron Hughes, may bring the curtain down on their international careers.

But the emergence of English-born duo, 21-year-old Jordan Jones and George Saville, who is 24, has given O'Neill reasons to be hopeful of further progress.

Now we can add the name of Lewis to that list, and just at the perfect time as O'Neill weighs up his options.

This time last year, the Luton-born left-back was an Under-19 international who was finding his feet in the Norwich Under-23 squad.

Fast forward 12 months and his Stamford Bridge header has catapulted him into the spotlight.

It's been a phenomenal rise for the 19-year-old. He qualifies for Northern Ireland through his grandmother on his mother's side, who comes from Lisburn, and he made his Under-21 debut during the 2-1 win over Estonia in June.

He had to wait until December 22 to break into the Norwich first team but, since coming off the bench against Brentford, he's started five of the Canaries' six outings.

"I have to pinch myself sometimes, but the opportunities I'm getting are things I knew were always going to happen," he told the club's official website. "I try to take them in my stride. I want to be a consistent left-back for the team and help us get results. I want to play as many games as possible and keep winning."

He's the latest name in Northern Ireland's growing pool of promising players. And his FA Cup header has put his name in the frame for the national senior side.

Belfast Telegraph

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