Belfast Telegraph

Why I rejected Scotland to stay with Northern Ireland, reveals Michael O'Neill

By Liam Blackburn

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill expects he will sign a new contract imminently after rejecting the offer to become Scotland's next manager earlier this week.

The 48-year-old has in principle agreed improved terms with the Irish Football Association and O'Neill anticipates an announcement will soon be made confirming an estimated £700,000-a-year deal that will run until 2024.

"We had very positive discussions before Christmas and I envisage now we'll pick up from where we left off," he said.

"It's not in terms of negotiations, there are just things that need to be sorted. The discussions were very, very positive so I look forward to having something to announce in the coming days."

O'Neill's current contract expires in 2020 and his willingness to sign an extension is a further boost to the IFA and Northern Irish fans after he passed on the chance to succeed Gordon Strachan as Scotland boss.

The Scottish Football Association had identified Edinburgh-based O'Neill as its preferred candidate back in November, when an agonising play-off loss to Switzerland saw Northern Ireland miss out on a place at this summer's World Cup.

O'Neill was reluctant to publicly discuss his future after the second leg in Basel but IFA chiefs swiftly showed an eagerness to tie him down to a fresh deal.

While the SFA dithered over agreeing to pay the £500,000 compensation fee that would allow them to engage in formal discussions with O'Neill, the IFA impressed the Northern Ireland boss with immediate talks over a new contract.

The SFA finally agreed to stump up the cash and met O'Neill last week but the IFA had always hoped he would remain in his post and so it proved as he represented Northern Ireland at yesterday's Uefa Nations League draw, where his men were pitted against Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group Three of League B.

On why he rejected the Scottish offer, O'Neill added: "There wasn't just one factor, of course it was a difficult decision.

"I live there in Scotland, know Scottish football very well, follow it very closely. It was tempting but ultimately I've been in this job six years and I've seen a lot of progression with the national team.

"The (Irish Football) Association showed great faith talking about a new contract so soon after the game in Switzerland - they didn't need to do that.

"I felt it was the right thing to do. It was very difficult, I wish Scotland and their next manager well. Ultimately it's very difficult once you've led your own country to leave for another country."

O'Neill's decision is likely to have an impact on his key senior players whom he has already spoken to in a bid to persuade them to shelve plans for international retirement.

Gareth McAuley, who has previously stated he would consider his international future if O'Neill left, and West Brom colleague Chris Brunt are among those the current boss is hoping can be convinced to carry on in a green and white shirt.

"I've spoken to most of the lads in question and discussions have been very, very positive," O'Neill added.

"There are two sides to it. It's March 2019 before the qualification for the Euros starts in earnest. The Nations League is almost like a pre-tournament. I'd like to go in with the strongest team possible.

"Our players have had a great four years. Some played a lot of international football and didn't have too many positives, too many great memories, and going forward they want it to last as long as possible."

O'Neill was in Switzerland to watch the draw for the inaugural Nations League, a competition devised to replace the majority of friendlies and ensure similarly-ranked nations face each other in competitive fixtures.

He has fond memories of meeting Austria having scored against them twice at Windsor Park in 1995 when Northern Ireland won 5-3, while Robert Prosinecki - who suffered two defeats against O'Neill's team in the recent World Cup qualifiers while in charge of Azerbaijan - has just been appointed the Bosnia-Herzegovina manager.

Should Northern Ireland finish top of their three-team group, they would be promoted to League A for the next Nations League.

Furthermore, the top four-ranked League B teams that do not qualify for Euro 2020 via the traditional qualifying method would still have a chance to make the competition via the play-offs.

"I think it's a good draw, a tough draw," O'Neill added.

"The nature of this competition is you have a chance to get promoted for the next Nations League.

"I think it's a good format and I get the feeling from speaking to a lot of coaches they see the same thing."

Northern Ireland host Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday, September 8 before visiting Austria on Friday, October 12 and Prosinecki's team three days later. Their final fixture is against Austria at Windsor Park on Sunday, November 18.

Who NI will be playing

AUSTRIA

It’s been a difficult few years for Austria who, despite making their way impressively into the top 10 of the world rankings, failed to reach either the 2014 or 2018 World Cups and couldn’t get out of a more than favourable looking group in the 2016 Euros in France. While they do boast a number of big names in the likes of David Alaba, Marko Arnautovic and Marc Janko, they haven’t lived up to their star billing as a squad.

Manager: Franco Foda

Star player: David Alaba

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

A team that, at one point, was considered cursed due to their repeated near misses in qualifying for major tournaments. They broke that in 2014, making it to the Brazil World Cup, however since then they haven’t kicked on, missing out on Euro 2016 at the hands of the Republic of Ireland and finishing third in their 2018 World Cup qualifying group. They rely on a couple of big names in Chelsea target Edin Džeko and Miralem Pjanic.

Manager: Robert Prosineki

Star player: Miralem Pjanic

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