Belfast Telegraph

O'Neill has what it takes to lead on two fronts, says Aaron Hughes

Great times: Aaron Hughes on night of his 100th cap with Michael O’Neill
Great times: Aaron Hughes on night of his 100th cap with Michael O’Neill

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland legend Aaron Hughes believes that Michael O'Neill has the intelligence and know-how to take charge of both club and country this season having been appointed manager of Stoke City last week.

Having guided the Championship strugglers to only their third league win of the campaign on Saturday, with a 4-2 success at Barnsley, O'Neill has now joined up with the international squad to lead Northern Ireland in crucial Euro 2020 qualifiers against the Netherlands and Germany.

Northern Ireland need to beat the Dutch at Windsor this weekend and Germany in Frankfurt next Tuesday to have any chance of qualifying automatically for next year's finals.

Failing that, the play-offs await in March when O'Neill, according to last weekend's statement from the Irish FA, will still be the dug-out for his country.

Writing in his Sunday Life column, ex-international Gareth McAuley stated "a clean break" would have been better for all concerned, while his old team-mate Warren Feeney suggested the dual role could prove difficult for O'Neill.

Recently retired Windsor favourite Hughes, who won 112 caps, has backed O'Neill and insisted he will know exactly what he is doing.

"Michael is a very intelligent person and I don't think he would do something without having the belief that he could do it," said former Newcastle, Aston Villa and Fulham star Hughes.

"He wouldn't entertain that for a start because, if he didn't feel he could do it, that would not be fair on himself or the other parties.

"If he has confidence in doing it, there is no reason why anyone should doubt him. The team and the structure that he has around him, and what he has built up with Northern Ireland, will probably, in the short-term, allow that to happen when he doesn't have to take the workload all by himself.

"He has good people around him who he trusts and works well with and know how Michael works. I can see why it would work in the short-term."

On O'Neill landing the Stoke post, Hughes added: "It is good to see him get the chance with day-to-day football and prove himself at that level. The result for Stoke at the weekend showed the impact he can have straight away. Hopefully that will continue.

"It's hard to describe what an incredible job he has done for Northern Ireland, not just on the pitch but how he has restructured the entire Association in terms of bringing young players through.

"Everything that needed to be improved he has had a hand in doing it, and for him now to have an opportunity to manage a club like Stoke is fully deserved."

Since the weekend, people within football have suggested they'll be surprised if O'Neill will be in charge of Northern Ireland in March given the big job he has on his hands at Stoke.

Hughes' former defensive team-mate Jonny Evans believes O'Neill taking charge of both Northern Ireland and Stoke allows the IFA time to pick the right man for the job.

Evans said: "They made an unbelievable appointment in Michael and he's spoken before about how they gave him time and backed him during a time of transition and difficulty at the start.

"What the IFA have done over the last few years has been first class, and I'm sure they'll pick the right man."

On O'Neill's appointment as Potters chief, Evans added: "Everyone is very happy for him, what he has done at international level has been amazing.

"He has been a constant through my international career, I've been working with him nearly eight years.

"He's always been that one manager to bounce off and has been incredible for my career and for a lot of the lads with Northern Ireland.

"We owe him a lot and I'm sure everyone sent him a congratulations text, and it's even better to have him with us through the rest of the campaign."

Indeed, O'Neill will be in the dug-out this Saturday night as Northern Ireland attempt to gain revenge for their 3-1 reverse last month in Rotterdam.

Asked if Northern Ireland can triumph this time, reflecting on how the team went close to stunning Germany in Belfast before losing 2-0, a positive Hughes declared: "Why not? Against Germany we more than matched them at Windsor. The way Germany came out in the second half and getting the goal so early knocked us back, but up until then we were well in the game and had good chances.

"If you repeat that against Holland, then there is no reason why we can't win. I believe that we can beat anyone at Windsor on any given day. There has to be a realistic belief that we can.

"Whether it works out on the night we shall see, but gone are the days of turning up with only hope. Now there is realistic belief that we can do something."

As a brilliant defender himself, Hughes appreciates the task of outdoing Liverpool's world-class centre-back Virgil van Dijk on Saturday night.

The 40-year-old said: "Virgil van Dijk is a class act. You don't get the plaudits he has received without backing it up with performances on the pitch. Last season he was brilliant and he has continued that form this season.

"Watching the previous Dutch game, any time we seemed to get joy on the break was down the sides. Their full-backs like to push on nice and high. One thing that struck me about the Dutch was that sometimes they overplayed a bit, and when they were turning the ball over, getting down the sides seemed to be our outlet.

"I can't imagine them changing their style of play. I think they'll have the self-confidence that they can win at Windsor, so they won't change too much, so in the areas we did well in the first match it could be the same again in Belfast.

"It was always going to be a tough group to get out of automatically, and if the play-offs are the route we take to reach the finals so be it. The most important thing is for Northern Ireland to get there. It doesn't matter how."

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