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'All roads lead to him': Ian Baraclough leads race to replace Michael O'Neill as Northern Ireland boss

Ian Baraclough

Northern Ireland under-21 boss Ian Baraclough is the shock leading contender to succeed Michael O'Neill as manager of the senior team.

Sunday Life Sport understands Englishman Baraclough will be promoted to O'Neill's backroom staff for the critical Euro 2020 play-off showdown with Bosnia on March 26, a significant stepping stone to the top job.

And crucially for the 49-year-old, he has O'Neill's all-important blessing to take over at the helm when the Ballymena man's eight glorious years come to an end this year.

Motherwell chief Stephen Robinson, a former Northern Ireland coach, has been the bookmakers' favourite to land the plum position since O'Neill announced he was leaving his post for Championship strugglers Stoke City last November, but an Irish FA insider told Sunday Life Sport: "All roads seem to lead to Baraclough at this stage, for a number of reasons. He is very well thought of within the association."

Baraclough took on the role of Northern Ireland U21 manager in May 2017 when O'Neill headhunted him from Oldham Athletic, where he was assisting Robinson.

Robinson also worked with Baraclough as his assistant at Motherwell and the rumour mill had it that the pair might work together again at international level.

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Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill

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Michael O'Neill

However, high level sources have indicated that Baraclough will be the main man, without Robinson's input.

Robinson appeared in court in Edinburgh this week to deny charges of assault and breach of the peace in the Scottish capital in December and will stand trial next month, but this is not thought to be a major factor in the Irish FA's thinking.

Lisburn man Robinson, a former senior international midfielder, told friends at the end of November that, while he would dearly love the Northern Ireland job, he feared the Irish FA would try and get the next manager on the cheap.

O'Neill's salary, after he led Northern Ireland to the brink of the 2018 World Cup finals following a marvellous Euro 2016, was raised to £800,000 per annum when he signed a new deal two years ago, with the Scottish FA also showing an interest.

His role was expanded and he was given the title of Chief Football Officer with overall responsibility for the development of football in Northern Ireland.

But the Irish FA was never going to offer his successor a similar role or deal with Chief Executive Patrick Nelson watching costs after a year that saw the association miss out on up to £1m of grant funding from Sport NI and a case of fraud that lost them hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Baraclough enjoyed a successful playing career as a defender with QPR, Grimsby Town, Scunthorpe, Lincoln City and Notts County before moving into management with Scunthorpe.

He remains celebrated in Sligo where he won Rovers' first league title in 35 years in 2012, and also won the FAI and Setanta Cups.

He was roundly praised in Northern Ireland when his U21s team finished second to Spain in the 2019 European Championship qualifiers.

However, his U21s have struggled to reproduce that form in the current Euro 2021 campaign, languishing in fifth place behind Denmark, Finland, Romania and Ukraine with just three points from five games.

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