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Sunday Life

Michael O'Neill focused on victory ahead of emotional Windsor Park farewell

Flying start: Michael O’Neill enjoys debut Stoke victory at Barnsley
Flying start: Michael O’Neill enjoys debut Stoke victory at Barnsley

By Paul Ferguson in Barnsley

In the tunnel at Oakwell Stadium on Saturday night, with the rain battering down and the lights flickering on and off, Stoke City boss Michael O’Neill spoke with great enthusiasm and passion about his new side’s powerful 4-2 victory over Barnsley.

It was a statement of O’Neill's intent in the Championship after arriving at the Potters only 48 hours prior to kick-off in south Yorkshire.

Stoke moved off the bottom of the table, won just their third game of the season and O’Neill was quick to inform the players in the dressing room about the momentum they had generated and must now build on.

But his mind was never far way from his Northern Ireland duties ahead of two massive Euro 2020 qualifying matches against the Netherlands and Germany this week.

After agreeing a deal with Stoke chiefs John and Peter Coates to manage his country in their final two games of the campaign, he knows it will likely be his farewell appearance at Windsor Park on Saturday night.

O’Neill admitted he would have turned down the Potters job if he’d been denied the chance to lead his beloved Northern Ireland on Saturday night in Belfast and next Tuesday in Frankfurt.

"That was my decision," said O’Neill. "I would not have taken the job if I wasn’t allowed to do the two games.

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"It simply wasn’t the right thing to walk out before the end of the campaign and I was very lucky John and Peter understood that.

"For the players to give me what they have over the last seven years, to just jump a few days before we play the Netherlands and Germany — I was never going to do that. There has to be a bit of loyalty on my part."

O’Neill doesn’t do emotion and very rarely even gives the fans a wave when they demand it from the terraces, so instead he knows the best gift he can offer is successful results.

Stoked up: Michael O’Neill urges his new club Stoke to victory at Barnsley on Saturday
Stoked up: Michael O’Neill urges his new club Stoke to victory at Barnsley on Saturday

But he might make a special exception on Saturday evening when he is sure to receive a rousing reception.

"You are not getting tears. You might get a wave, but that’s it," conceded O’Neill last night. "We’ll keep the emotion under wraps. The main thing is to win the game. We played so well against Germany at home and were narrowly beaten. I want the same level of performance and we owe Holland one, so it would be nice to win the game."

O’Neill has been conscious in recent days of the support he has received from the Northern Ireland public around taking the Stoke job and will be proud to represent them again in these final two Euro qualifiers.

"It means a lot because the thing for me was to put a team on the pitch who the public could be proud off, that they could back and follow," admitted O’Neill.

"They have done that in their numbers, which has been fantastic. At times we haven’t always won, but we have competed at the highest level of international football after years of pretty much playing in the fourth division of international football.

"So, that’s the pleasing aspect for me — and to see the players believe they can play at the highest level. It’s a great opportunity for them to show that again in these two games."

Northern Ireland were cruelly defeated 3-1 in Rotterdam last month, with two Dutch goals coming in injury time. A month before that they gave Germany a bloody nose before they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat.

The men in green know if they are to secure automatic qualification they need to beat the Dutch 2-0 followed by victory over the Germans or a win over the Netherlands and a 3-0 defeat of Germany.

"It’s not beyond us," admits O’Neill. "The target will be to try and take it to the last game. The difficulty for us is that it goes on a head-to-head situation. For us to qualify we need to beat Holland 2-0 here and Germany 1-0. If we don’t have the upper hand in the head-to-head with Holland, then we have to beat Germany 3-0 in Frankfurt. So that’s the difficulty. But the message will be simple — take it to the last game and who is to say something will not happen with the Dutch in the last game? You have to create pressure. There can be a result that upsets things."

The play-offs next March seem to be Northern Ireland’s realistic route to the Euro finals, but O’Neill is certainly not giving up hope.

"If it is the play-offs, it is the play-offs and for us we would go into the play-offs in a strong place mentally because of how we have played against this level of opposition," conceded O’Neill.

"We will not play the games resigned as though the games don’t really matter because, let’s be honest, we owe the Dutch one. To lose the way we did, you want to make sure we show them what we are capable at home, then come what may in the last game."

The Irish FA announced on Friday, in their statement on O’Neill’s departure, that they had come to an agreement with Stoke with regard to keeping the Ballymena man should Northern Ireland reach those play-offs.

But O’Neill hinted that arrangement will maybe be discussed at further date and the IFA may have even chosen a replacement come early next year.

"It is not for now," stated O’Neill. "We will look at that scenario when it comes around and the association has a lot of time. All these things can’t be decided in the space of 48 hours, but I have already a good relationship with the owner.

"The relationship between them and the association is good, based on the negotiations to let me take this job. Common sense will prevail and we’ll get the right resolution for everyone."

For now, O'Neill can bask in the glory of his first win as Stoke manager and look forward to tackling the Netherlands and Germany, in what could prove an international fairytale farewell.

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