Belfast Telegraph

Stephen Craigan: Next Northern Ireland boss has plenty to work with

All change: Outgoing NI boss Michael O’Neill
All change: Outgoing NI boss Michael O’Neill
Stephen Craigan

By Stephen Craigan

All good things have to come to an end eventually and when Michael O'Neill steps away from the Northern Ireland job, the biggest challenge for the next manager is to maintain the level of performance set by the Ballymena man and the players.

The job itself is an attractive one for so many reasons.

The support the team gets home and away is unwavering and inspiring. The current squad assembled knows how to win games and they give everything they've got when they pull on the green jersey. There's also been a new level of professionalism brought to every aspect of international trips, and the players have responded with a great level of consistency.

We know we have a small pool of players to choose from but the ones that have been available over the last few years have been exceptional and there is plenty for the new manager to work with.

The balance in the squad is evolving all the time and as much as the younger lads are making their way in the game, the senior guys like Jonny Evans, Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas and Craig Cathcart are vital for the new manager.

They have been there and done it, delivered on the pitch when it's mattered and have always made themselves available for selection. This has to continue as they're the driving force for the squad and set a great example for the younger lads coming into the group.

Naturally there is a concern with captain Davis and how long he can go on for. Having watched him closely this season at Rangers, his performances are showing no signs of deteriorating. If anything, he's looking even more the complete player, if there is such a thing. He controls the tempo of games and dictates possession for both Rangers and Northern Ireland.

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Evans and Cathcart have allowed the team to play the expansive style they do. They are two Rolls Royce centre-halves, naturally comfortable in possession of the ball and make it look easy. They can defend man for man comfortably and they bring so much personality to the team with their confidence and assurance.

Dallas has shown that no matter what position he's played, he delivers a top-class level of performance. That's vital for a manager to have someone so versatile, meaning you can adapt the shape of the team in a game without having to make a substitution.

The younger lads have been a breath of fresh air to the squad and have brought a freshness and excitement to it.

Stuart Dallas
Stuart Dallas

Jamal Lewis has been the stand-out performer and his meteoric rise has been great to see from the days that I first worked with him in the U19 set-up.

Paddy McNair just keeps getting better and it's hard to think of our midfield without him in it. His consistency and energy have been excellent and he will continue to be an asset for the new man in charge.

The emergence of Gavin Whyte and Jordan Jones in the wide areas is a real cause for excitement. They both have pace to burn, love taking defenders on and get supporters off their seats.

Despite the lack of first-team opportunities for Bailey Peacock-Farrell at Burnley, some of the crucial saves he's made in recent internationals show his potential. He's shown maturity beyond his years and will only get better.

For the pool of players to grow, the new manager has to hope the current U19 and U21 players get themselves playing first-team football at some level so they're ready to step up.

There will always be opportunities to be fast-tracked into the senior team, as was proved recently with Ethan Galbraith and Alfie McCalmont against Luxembourg.

Jonny Evans
Jonny Evans

So with Michael relinquishing his post, he will leave behind a group of talented and motivated footballers that love playing for Northern Ireland.

For the new manager, that's a great starting point.

Belfast Telegraph

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