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Next Northern Ireland manager: The lowdown on top four candidates from those they've worked with

As the Irish Football Association step up the search for Michael O'Neill's successor, we get character references on the leading contenders from those they've worked alongside


Tommy Wright, Stephen Robinson, Jim Magilton and Ian Baraclough are the top candidates to succeed Michael O'Neill as Northern Ireland manager.

Tommy Wright, Stephen Robinson, Jim Magilton and Ian Baraclough are the top candidates to succeed Michael O'Neill as Northern Ireland manager.

Tommy Wright, Stephen Robinson, Jim Magilton and Ian Baraclough are the top candidates to succeed Michael O'Neill as Northern Ireland manager.

The Irish FA plan to start approaching candidates this month in their quest to replace Michael O'Neill as Northern Ireland boss and hope to be in a position to make an appointment no later than July.

Under-21 manager Ian Baraclough is the favourite at this stage. As Sunday Life Sport revealed early this year, it is understood he has the support of key figures at Windsor Park but there is also backing at IFA headquarters for Motherwell's Stephen Robinson.

Tommy Wright, who on Saturday quit St Johnstone after seven years at the helm in Perth, and the IFA Elite Performance Director Jim Magilton are viewed as outsiders but sources in the governing body are not ruling them out and have claimed that others could also be in the frame.

The Irish FA board, as reported in Sunday Life Sport last week, have instructed a four-person panel to lead the recruitment process.

An IFA source said that the Association will begin by "engaging with external stakeholders" which effectively means discovering who is interested in the position.

The next course of action will be for the IFA to select the candidates they wish to speak to.

Even at this early stage, it is understood that some candidates feel Baraclough is in pole position but the IFA insist no decision has been made yet and are intent on being thorough in their search to land the right man.

Sunday Life Sport can also reveal that should the IFA wish to speak to senior players about the current situation, those calls would be welcomed and that the starting salary for the next boss won't come close to the whopping £750,000-per-year deal O'Neill negotiated in his final contract with the Association.

Here's the lowdown on the four top candidates from those they've worked with:

Stuart King on Tommy Wright

Current Banbridge Town manager Stuart King played for Tommy Wright at Ballymena United

As a man manager, Tommy Wright is very special.


Tommy Wright

Tommy Wright

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Tommy Wright


He makes you feel like a million dollars. For example, in my first season when he was manager of Ballymena, I was awful but he kept encouraging me and working with me and I turned it around and ended up doing well at the club. That was down to Tommy.

His attention to detail is second to none. When he was at Ballymena, he knew everything about everybody in the Irish League and I know it was the same in Scotland with St Johnstone.

His budget was constantly cut at St Johnstone and he continued to do a fantastic job over there. No doubt about it, he over-achieved in Scotland.

It didn’t surprise me how well he did with St Johnstone. He became manager after Steve Lomas and, no disrespect to St Johnstone, they aren’t a big club and he kept them in the top flight for years and created history by leading them to Scottish Cup success and that was after losing his best player.

Another thing is Tommy is very highly thought of in football circles which should never be overlooked.

I know how much Northern Ireland means to him and I think he just fits for the job with his experience and the ability he has in getting the best out of players.

I also feel Tommy would love to have the opportunity to manage his country and the fans would take to him.

At Ballymena, Tommy was great at being able to secure results against bigger clubs and you see how well he has carried that on with St Johnstone.

Having that quality is very important when you are manager of Northern Ireland as Michael O’Neill showed in his time in charge. I believe at international level Tommy could get results.

Conor Marlin on Stephen Robinson

Conor Marlin is Head of Coaching at Oldham Athletic, where Stephen Robinson was the manager in 2016

Stephen has endless energy, enthusiasm and amazing football knowledge — and he gets buy-in from that.


Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson

Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson

Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson


People like him and want to play for him.

When he was at Oldham, everyone at the club bought into him as a person and his leadership style.

Pete Wild, who is now manager at Halifax, had been around Oldham for many years and said Robbo was the only manager who had come in with a plan about what the team and club would do. He tried to do that, but ridiculous bad luck and the off-the-field situation at the club meant he moved on.

Then he showed character to bounce back and become boss of Motherwell.

The job he has done there is one of the best in British football in recent years. In terms of budget, Motherwell should be fighting relegation yet Robbo has taken them to two Cup Finals, third in the Scottish Premiership and into Europe. That is phenomenal and illustrates how good a manager and coach he is.

I think Robbo, like Michael O’Neill, has evolved as a manager in the last few years. You look at the style of play at Motherwell and they are an exciting side who get results.

He is also brilliant with developing youngsters and improving them, which is vital in management these days.

He is more than capable of following Michael’s footsteps in international football.

To me, with Northern Ireland Robbo would certainly be a smooth transition for the team.

He was an important part of the successful Euro 2016 campaign in qualifying and the finals and in terms of first hand contact and knowledge of the players, plus the way Michael and the players worked, there would be no one better.

Also, he is the only candidate who has worked for a long time in the senior team with Michael.

Richard Brush on Ian Baraclough

Cliftonville goalkeeper Richard Brush played for Ian Baraclough at Sligo Rovers

Ian’s attention to detail was always something that stood out to me.


Ian Baraclough

Ian Baraclough

Ian Baraclough


He got the Sligo Rovers job a few days before the season started and, while you would expect him to have a decent knowledge of the squad he was inheriting (otherwise he’d never have been appointed in the first place), he also knew all of our opponents inside out and used that to great effect when we were preparing for games — a skill that you imagine he’d be able to enhance further on the international stage, given the longer breaks between matches and the extra resources he’d have available to him compared to what he worked with in the League of Ireland.

None of us really knew who Ian was when he first came in, but what was apparent straight away was his professionalism and that he clearly knew his stuff.

He won the League in his first season but never really got the credit he deserved because people said he’d basically done it with someone else’s squad.

To me, though, that just proves how good a manager he is because surely it’s more difficult to come in and try to make another manager’s players gel and perform to a high level week in, week out.

I don’t claim to know much about how the international set-up works, but it could be a big advantage to him — and the Northern Ireland side in general — that he’s already worked with some of the players at Under 21 level.

The next batch who come through will be familiar with him and his methods.

That might just give him a half-foot in the door over everyone else in contention and, to my mind, his appointment could be a seamless transition.

Gerard Lyttle on Jim Magilton

Northern Ireland Under 16 manager Gerard Lyttle works under Elite Performance Director Jim Magilton at the Irish FA

When I was Cliftonville manager, I wasn’t aware too much of the work going on at Club NI but now that I know a lot more about it, how Jim has developed that programme is incredible.

Jim Magilton


You only have to look at the players that go across the water every year. There is a constant flow and so much of that is down to Jim. The programme has been a massive success for our young talent and Northern Ireland. The work that Jim puts in with the players and the other coaching staff is top class.

To me, Jim is a fantastic coach and his knowledge of the game at all levels is outstanding. Another huge positive with Jim is the person he is. When I left the manager’s job at Sligo and it was like my world had ended, I reached out to Jim and he said to come and do a few sessions with the boys to keep ticking over.

He didn’t need to do that but it meant the world to me and showed the type of man Jim is which, to me, is hugely important.

We are now close friends and have a great working relationship and I have learned so much from him in terms of coaching and man management and other aspects of the game. Working with Jim has been the best thing that has happened to me in relation to my development.

I believe it is when you work closely with Jim Magilton that you see how good he is. He has all the qualities that you need in modern day football and great passion about the players in Northern Ireland. He wants the best for them and gets the best out of them mentally and physically.

Belfast Telegraph