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Michael O'Neill: I couldn't have gone to Euros with Northern Ireland this summer

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Michael O’Neill has left his post as Northern Ireland manager (Brian Lawless/PA)

Michael O’Neill has left his post as Northern Ireland manager (Brian Lawless/PA)

Michael O’Neill has left his post as Northern Ireland manager (Brian Lawless/PA)

Michael O'Neill was willing to deliver Northern Ireland to the promised land for a second time - and then walk away.

There would have been no fairy tale finals farewell for O'Neill.

For in his final act as Northern Ireland manager before concentrating all his efforts on Stoke City, O'Neill reveals to Sunday Life Sport he wouldn't have been in a position to lead the men in green at Euro 2020, even if he'd managed to guide his country through the play-offs and the tournament had gone ahead as scheduled.

The deal O'Neill had brokered with Stoke City last November, when he took over at the bet365 Stadium, was to manage Northern Ireland in the March play-off games, nothing more.

It would have been agonising for O'Neill to quit if he'd secured qualifications and let another manager enjoy the trappings of a finals journey, but the 50 year-old concedes anything less would have been disrespectful to Stoke and the monumental job he feels is required over the off-season to get the Potters back challenging for promotion to the Premier League.

In the event, the coronavirus pandemic intervened, wiping out all football for the foreseeable future, with the Euro play-offs postponed until October at the earliest, left O'Neill with no option but to mutually agree with the Irish FA to call time on his hugely successful eight year reign as Northern Ireland manager.

"I think honestly it would have been quite difficult for me to go to the finals, because there is so much needs to be done (at Stoke)," confesses O'Neill, who it is understood would have been in line to receive a half-a-million pounds bonus for leading Northern Ireland to their second successive Euro finals.

"Stoke came out of the Premier League and is in its second season in the Championship, it doesn't want to be there for very long and obviously our priority is to stay in the Championship this season.

"So there was a lot of work needed done in the off-season with Stoke and going to a major tournament (for around a month), with all that it requires, what it takes out of you in terms of preparation, was always going to be a difficult.

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Michael O’Neill has revealed how Steven Davis helped persuade him to go for the Northern Ireland job (Liam McBurney/PA)

Michael O’Neill has revealed how Steven Davis helped persuade him to go for the Northern Ireland job (Liam McBurney/PA)

Michael O’Neill has revealed how Steven Davis helped persuade him to go for the Northern Ireland job (Liam McBurney/PA)

"My only priority was getting us there."

While O'Neill is today coming to terms with his Northern Ireland managerial career being brought to a premature conclusion, he admits it very nearly didn't even get started due to a lack of self belief and confidence.

O'Neill today is regarded as a visionary, a manager capable of inspiring players to greatness and who stands up and verbally spars with authorities to get the best for his squad of men.

Along with Peter Doherty, of 1958 World Cup fame, and Billy Bingham, who guided the men in green to two consecutive World Cup finals in 1982 and 1986, O'Neill is regarded as one of Northern Ireland's greatest ever managers.

But back in 2011, with the Northern Ireland manager's position vacant after Nigel Worthington had fallen on his sword, O'Neill, even though he had enjoyed unprecedented success with Shamrock Rovers on the domestic and European stage, felt inferior going up against Iain Dowie and Jim Magilton due to their experience in the English professional game.

But a chance meeting with Steven Davis, and a few choice words from his future captain, completely changed O'Neill's mindset and allowed him to smash his IFA interview.

As President Jim Shaw would tell me later: "It was a unanimous decision. Michael was quite simply brilliant."

O'Neill says: "I'll be honest, I didn't think I was ready to do the job before I interviewed for the job.

"It was only after a conversation I had with Steven Davis at the time, at Derek McKinley's testimonial dinner when we were chatting at the bar.

"He asked me about the job and he gave me the confidence to go into the interview. I'd never really met Steven at that stage but he said he thought I'd be good and it did give me confidence."

Three years ago, Davis' wise words worked wonders again for Northern Ireland and O'Neill when Scotland were interested in capturing the Ballymena man for their national team.

O'Neill adds: "In 2017, there was the potential to leave after the Switzerland game but the conversation with Steven was an important one. He told me they wouldn't want to see me leave for another international team and that was an important conversation for me."

O'Neill signed a new Irish FA contract, changed Northern Ireland's style to be an attractive attacking force, brought new young players into the set-up and leaves his country in yet another play-off for a major finals.

His focus is now completely on rejuvenating Stoke and when football eventually returns, O'Neill still has a huge task on his hands to keep his club in the Championship. With nine games to go, they sit three points above the drop zone.

Northern Ireland are not expected to play at the earliest until September 4 when they are due to travel to Bucharest for a Nations League match against Romania, but that may be postponed in favour of domestic action, leaving international football to return in October.

That will nearly be a year since O'Neill last managed Northern Ireland but he admits it's going to be strange experience watching his international players in action on television rather than playing a supporting role from the dugout.

"When I see Northern Ireland play again, I will feel it a little bit more and there will be more of a finality to it," stresses O'Neill.

"The team hasn't played since November and looks like it will not play again until September at the very earliest, so you are talking a period of 10 months and I suppose that will give me enough time to get used to it.

"It is never easy but it is the right decision for the Association, it is the right decision for Stoke and ultimately it is the right decision for me and the players. They will benefit from a new voice and a new manager coming in, which is important.

"I think the players still have a lot to give and all round, it is the right decision."

Post Michael O'Neill era starts now...

Belfast Telegraph