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Michael O'Neill: Northern Ireland can beat Bosnia no matter when Euro play-off finally goes ahead


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Full belief: Michael O’Neill is confident Northern Ireland can come through the play-offs

Full belief: Michael O’Neill is confident Northern Ireland can come through the play-offs

Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson

Full belief: Michael O’Neill is confident Northern Ireland can come through the play-offs

Michael O'Neill has spoken of his disappointment that Northern Ireland's Euro 2020 play-off semi-final away to Bosnia & Herzegovina has had to be postponed indefinitely.

And in an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, O'Neill has revealed what he believes is the key to beating Bosnia when the game eventually takes place and talked about the strengths of some of the candidates in line to replace him when he leaves his post.

With the coronavirus outbreak sweeping across the world, the Northern Ireland manager understands that Uefa had no choice but to call the Bosnia game off and is the first to say there are much more important things going on than football right now.

At the back of his mind, though, there may be a sense that having dedicated the best part of the last decade to making Northern Ireland a force in international football and taking the nation to a major tournament for the first time in 30 years that he may not lead his country again.

That looked like the case when he held talks with Championship strugglers Stoke City at the start of November. Then came the announcement that, after agreement was reached between O'Neill, his new club and the Irish FA, he would stay on for the remaining Euro 2020 qualifiers against Holland and Germany and be the boss for the subsequent play-offs as well as move into the hotseat at Stoke.

Adding to the plot, the Northern Ireland players made it clear they wanted O'Neill to be at the helm if they reached the Euro 2020 finals.

In March, O'Neill would have taken a short break from his duties at Stoke to be in charge of Northern Ireland in Bosnia on the 26th of that month. Had an away win been secured, the former Newcastle, Dundee United and Hibs player would have been in the dug-out for the final versus the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia five days later at Windsor Park.

On St Patrick's Day, however, with deaths increasing across Europe due to Covid-19, Uefa declared that the Euro 2020 finals would be delayed for a year and that the play-offs would be played in June. Two weeks later, Uefa stated it wasn't feasible for the play-offs to go ahead in June and that they had been postponed indefinitely.

Although Uefa have yet to release further details about when Northern Ireland will face Bosnia, inevitable speculation has followed relating to O'Neill's position.

O'Neill would have been able to manage Northern Ireland in March and even June but has said previously that his dual role "wouldn't be doable if you were doing it in September, October and November".

The growing belief is his hugely successful international reign is over, though in an interview with this newspaper last week IFA president David Martin insisted he wanted O'Neill to be in charge whenever the Bosnia game takes place, pointing out the 50-year-old was the "best person to take the team" and "the man to get us to the Euro finals".

Out of respect for employers Stoke City and the IFA, O'Neill would not be drawn on what happens next where Northern Ireland is concerned.

When asked, though, about his feelings in relation to the play-off with Bosnia being postponed, O'Neill said: "It was disappointing that the match (with Bosnia) wasn't able to take place in March.

"I kind of anticipated it may be postponed when coronavirus raised its head.

"It was also disappointing that the match couldn't take place in June, though it was the right decision. Now, in terms of when that game is played, everything is up in the air."

As manager of Northern Ireland, O'Neill has produced miracles, none more so than inspiring the side to the Euro 2016 finals.

For Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and co to repeat the feat and play in the business end of the tournament again next year, they must overcome Bosnia and then the Republic or Slovakia. Regardless of whether O'Neill will be manager or not, he feels the key to glory will be having all the big guns available.

"I do think Northern Ireland can win in Bosnia," he said.

"With play-off games there is a lot at stake and sometimes the home nation is under more pressure.

"Bosnia will have expectation because they have a chance to play two games at home and qualify. Of all four teams in our play-off section they have the best deal and the Republic have the worst because they have to play both games away to make it.

"In the play-off games we would need to be at full strength. You only have to look at the last group game in Germany (Northern Ireland lost 6-1) when we had Jonny Evans, Stuart Dallas, Jamal Lewis and one or two others out.

"Germany could do what they did to us to any team but it would have helped us greatly to have had everyone available. In big matches I think that is an important factor for us.

"When the play-off game in Bosnia does come around we need 100% availability and if we win and reach the final our fans could be massive at Windsor Park."

When O'Neill's era is over, those supporters will laud him for a remarkable job. They will also look to his successor to carry it on. Motherwell boss Stephen Robinson, St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright and Northern Ireland Under-21 boss Ian Baraclough are the favourites to replace him.

All have worked as coaches with O'Neill in the senior international ranks.

Other names in the frame include IFA elite performance director Jim Magilton and Hull City manager Grant McCann.

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson

Quizzed on the potential candidates, O'Neill said: "Stephen (Robinson) has done a very, very good job at Motherwell. He has come back from the disappointment of Oldham which was a difficult job.

"It was good for him to go back to a club he knew in Motherwell.

"He had a good relationship with the chief executive (Alan Burrows) from when he was there as assistant manager and has done very well since.

"He has reached cup finals with Motherwell and they are going very well in the league this season.

"He has also done well in terms of the style of play. He has changed it and he has developed assets. He brought players to the club who weren't at great times in their career because Motherwell can't sign people for big money and he has rejuvenated them.

"What Tommy (Wright) has is great longevity and great experience of management with the highs and then dealing with runs when the team isn't doing so well.

"Equally he is at a club where he has consistently got them punching above their weight which is very similar to what you have to do with Northern Ireland.

"Ian is slightly different. He had a lot of success in his first campaign with the Under-21s. He did extremely well with what I didn't think was a particularly strong group of players. He had some excellent results and we have seen a number of those players push through to the senior squad.

"Obviously he was a club manager as well but he hasn't been in that scenario as long as Tommy or Robbo. What he has shown is the ability at international level, albeit at Under-21 level. He comes with a different type of pedigree."

O'Neill will be asked by the IFA for his views on who should follow him. He added: "I will help the Association any way I can as I have always tried to do but ultimately the decision of who takes over is for the Irish FA."

Belfast Telegraph