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O'Neill eyeing up double swoop for Northern Ireland pair McNair and Lewis after keeping Stoke up

 

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Michael O'Neill and Paddy McNair (left) during their Northern Ireland days

Michael O'Neill and Paddy McNair (left) during their Northern Ireland days

William Cherry/Presseye

Michael O'Neill and Paddy McNair (left) during their Northern Ireland days

Former Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill banked a cool £1.5m bonus for keeping Stoke City in the Championship yesterday - and then immediately set his sights on capturing two of his star young players at international level.

O'Neill's Potters shocked Premier League-chasing Brentford 1-0 at the bet365 Stadium to confirm their safety with one game to spare in the campaign and also crown Northern Ireland ace Stuart Dallas and his newly-promoted Leeds United team champions of the Championship.

O'Neill will now start an immediate rebuild at Stoke as he looks to strengthen their hand for next season with Middlesbrough's Paddy McNair and Norwich full-back Jamal Lewis his prime transfer targets.

Former Manchester United starlet McNair was one of O'Neill's favourite players at international level, able to play in defence or midfield, while Luton-born Lewis was brought into the Northern Ireland set-up after being discovered and scouted by Stoke's head of performance analysis, Andy Cousins.

McNair is half way through a four-year contract at the Riverside Stadium after signing for Middlesbrough in June 2018.

However, since Jonathan Woodgate was dismissed as manager and veteran Neil Warnock took over, 25-year-old McNair has been out of favour.

Middlesbrough are still languishing perilously close to the relegation zone at the bottom of the Championship, but a draw against Sheffield Wednesday in their final game of the season on Wednesday night should guarantee their survival.

If Boro are encouraged to sell McNair, they will want to recoup at least the £5m they spent on bringing in the Ballyclare lad from Sunderland.

Flying full-back Lewis will be a much more difficult player to entice to the bet365 Stadium.

He's on a long-term deal with recently-relegated Norwich and the Canaries would be looking for at least £10m for his services and it's highly unlikely they would be willing to sell to a Championship rival.

The 22-year-old may also be considering bigger and better options as he has also attracted the interest of Premier League champions Liverpool and Leicester City.

If O'Neill fails in his pursuit of Lewis, he may opt to change direction and bring in much-needed experience in the form of ex-Northern Ireland international Chris Brunt, now 35, who will soon be a free agent after being released by West Brom following 13 years at The Hawthorns.

Yesterday's result against Brentford meant it was mission completed for O'Neill, whose prime objective when he took over last November - when Stoke were rooted to the bottom of the table - was to make sure the Potters beat the dreaded drop.

After a few nervous moments in the run-in, Stoke moved up to 17th place, well clear of the relegation zone.

O'Neill said: "I think it's always relief when you are in this situation. It's a relief to get it finally done and to do it and win against a very, very good team is a positive for us as well.

"But it's nothing for us to celebrate - it is just something for us to look at the progress we have made and we will look to continue that going forward."

Belfast Telegraph