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Hopes for Michael O'Neill's Euro farewell dashed as coronavirus disrupts UEFA's plans


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Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland journey looks to be over

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland journey looks to be over

PA

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland journey looks to be over

Breaking up from a long term relationship is never easy. When it's abrupt, the emotions are stronger.

Irish FA chiefs will be hurting and emotional this morning.

They knew the moment was coming this year, possibly even at the end of this month. But they'd been putting off the inevitable in their minds.

Since Michael O'Neill agreed a deal to join Stoke City as manager last November and then managed to persuade his new employers to let him boss Northern Ireland during the Euro 2020 play-offs, the IFA were hoping to prolong the love affair by reaching the finals in the summer.

Surely Stoke, with Championship safety confirmed, wouldn't deny O'Neill the chance to finish his Northern Ireland tenure on an almighty high in his second successive European finals?

Yet the deadly coronavirus is putting paid to all those plans.

Following FIFA's recommendation on Friday night that all international matches in March and April be postponed and that clubs shouldn't feel compelled to release their players, UEFA, when they host a video conference with every Association president and general secretary on Tuesday lunchtime, are set to oblige by calling off Northern Ireland's Euro 2020 play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 26, along with the Republic's clash with Slovakia on the same evening.

With medical chiefs insisting there is no sign of the Covid-19 abating by June and with leagues around Europe, including in England, determined to finish their schedule, international football looks set to take a hit, so Northern Ireland will not be permitted to play in early summer.

The Euro 2020 finals is likely to become the 2021 finals. UEFA may determine that on Tuesday.

For O'Neill, that will signal the end of his Northern Ireland journey.

UEFA may continue with the Nations League games in the autumn, provided the virus has been eradicated, or indeed put all the focus on club football.

This will then leave the play-offs to be determined next March during the international window.

O'Neill managing Northern Ireland during the Nations League games in September, October and November is simply not an option. Nor would he even contemplate it - despite having a huge amount of confidence in his own ability.

The Ballymena man has openly admitted that in the last three months, he has had very little to do with the international set-up, instead allowing his under-21 boss Ian Baraclough to do all the scouting, analysis and preparation for Bosnia.

The Irish FA, of course, could bring in a caretaker manager for the Nations League and then bring O'Neill back for the Euro play-offs next March, but no respected manager worth their salt would allow that to happen and with O'Neill having been away from the international squad for well over a year by then, even he would ascertain that he wouldn't be the best man for the job.

Therefore, those in power at Windsor Park will have to say their premature farewells to O'Neill and bring forward their recruitment plans to find a successor.

Baraclough, Stephen Robinson and Jim Magilton are all in the frame, while if Grant McCann is dismissed by Hull City, does he suddenly become the favourite?

O'Neill, after all he achieved with Northern Ireland during the last eight years, deserved to finish with a memorable occasion.

Instead, his last match in charge will be the dead rubber in Frankfurt last November, when a depleted Northern Ireland side were thrashed 6-1 by resurgent Germany.

But that game will always be an unfair reflection on his Northern Ireland team.

Northern Ireland, without Jonny Evans and Stuart Dallas, were out of the running for automatic qualification and O'Neill's thoughts had already moved on to Stoke's game that weekend against Wigan.

He and his Northern Ireland side ran Germany and the Netherlands so close for automatic qualification during the last campaign.

The Dutch in particular, despite their array of talent at Ronald Koeman's disposal, found Northern Ireland a formidable force. They knew they were fortunate to come away with a late 3-1 win Rotterdam and then with Steven Davis missing a penalty in Belfast, the Oranje were relieved to draw the Windsor Park encounter.

O'Neill completely revolutionised the Irish FA international set-up and for that, Northern Ireland should be eternally grateful.

Last November, after the draw with the Netherlands at Windsor Park, there was an iconic image of O'Neill leaving the pitch with skipper Steven Davis, arm-in-arm.

O'Neill admitted, after all Davis and him had achieved together, he wanted it to be the Cullybackey man who he exited the Northern Ireland stage with.

Sadly for Northern Ireland fans and concerned Irish FA chiefs, the encore has now been cancelled.

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