Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill: It has been business as usual, now bring on the Dutch

Northern Ireland v Netherlands. It's an epic match in the making and the first time the sides have played at Windsor Park since those football icons George Best and Johan Cruyff wore green and orange in Belfast in 1977.

This time it's Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Paddy McNair up against Georginio Wijnaldum, Virgil van Dijk and Frenkie de Jong in what will be a rip-roaring atmosphere.

There is also Euro 2020 qualification at stake, yet the first part of Michael O'Neill's eve-of-match press conference was taken up not with tonight's mouthwatering contest but his future down the line.

One week ago, O'Neill was leading Stoke City to a fabulous 4-2 win at Barnsley having taken over the struggling Championship outfit the day before.

As part of the deal that took the Northern Ireland boss to Stoke, O'Neill will manage his country tonight and in Germany on Tuesday to end the group stages of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign as well as in the play-offs in March if they are needed.

Should O'Neill, as he did with Euro 2016, lead the team to next year's finals, the IFA and all of his international players want him to be in charge for the big show in the summer, yet there are some in the game who think working for Stoke will be too demanding to stay on as manager of Northern Ireland at the same time.

Some have suggested he may only have the club job come March.

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In his media briefing, O'Neill pointed out that this didn't feel like the start of his goodbye. He insisted: "The week for me has been no different from any other week, it genuinely hasn't.

"We got the work done, the players have been very focused, more focused than they've been in the past, maybe hoping me as a club manager might sign them! They've been extra attentive," he added with a grin.

"This is the start of an incredibly difficult double-header and while we have an outside chance of qualification, we will do everything we can to take it to the final game.

"If we don't qualify through that route, then hopefully we have a play-off to look forward to in March."

So you will take charge of the play-offs?

"That's the plan at the minute," he stated.

After that?

"That's the plan at the minute," he repeated, snapping a similar retort when the question was raised a third time.

Asked if it was difficult doing both jobs, O'Neill said: "No, not really because I was only a club manager for one day.

"I've only been there one day, which was Friday. One day's training and then played the game on the Saturday, so I haven't had that much time to be a club manager.

"I'm still very much an international manager, while keeping abreast of things at the club."

You have much to do at Stoke, do you worry that may be a distraction over the coming days?

"No, definitely not. I think I have a good staff," he added.

"The (Stoke) players have been in training, but we can't do anything tactically.

"We had one 45-minute session before we trained for Barnsley and that was enough to make an impact on the team.

"Next week we will have three days of work before we play and typically when you come into an international, you have three days to prepare a team, so preparing a team for the next league game will not faze me with three days of preparation.

"I genuinely don't think it's an issue.

"The work which the players are doing which has been set by me is being handled by my staff and we're pleased with what's going on there. Ultimately, the focus is on here (Northern Ireland) and the club know that as well."

Northern Ireland need to beat Holland - and preferably 2-0 - to keep their automatic qualification hopes alive and follow it up with a victory in Germany.

The play-offs are much more likely for O'Neill's team and both the semi-final and final could be away, so this might be the manager's last game at Windsor Park.

"I haven't thought about that to be honest. I'm not one for big emotions," said 50-year-old O'Neill. "I'll just try to prepare the team as well as we have done and I believe we are ready to play."

So will there be any sadness? He said: "Possibly, yeah.

"Maybe I'm young enough that in the future I could come back?

"The thing for me is we have gone to a major championships, missed out on a World Cup unfairly and we're in the running to qualify again for a major championship.

"That's been done with brilliant application from the players and it's been great in the last three campaigns that we've had something to play for."

Last month, Northern Ireland lost 3-1 to the Dutch in Rotterdam after taking the lead through Josh Magennis in the 75th minute.

Post-match, Holland boss Ronald Koeman had a pop at the tactics of the visitors.

O'Neill said: "When you've an embarrassment of riches and you're suddenly 1-0 down to Northern Ireland, that leads to frustration."

When pressed on his negative comments at his press conference last night, Koeman apologised.

Northern Ireland fans will want him to feel even more sorry tonight with the hope that magic man O'Neill pulls another rabbit out of the hat.

Belfast Telegraph

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