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Gareth McAuley

Why virus' knock-on effect could hit current Northern Ireland stars and future prospects

Gareth McAuley


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Kyle Lafferty

Kyle Lafferty

Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill

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Kyle Lafferty

After a week in which Michael O'Neill finally departed as Northern Ireland manager, you would think the Irish FA's most pressing concern regarding the international team would be finding a successor.

Yet I'm convinced there is a bigger, more damning issue on the horizon - one that could have catastrophic consequences for Northern Ireland football.

When the dust settles on the Covid-19 pandemic and we're all out of lockdown, professional football will have been hit hard. No club will come away unscathed.

There will be major financial restrictions, senior squads look set to be reduced, Under-23 teams are likely to be scrapped and those hoping for a new contract or even a team in the summer will find it extremely difficult.

For years, money was basically no object in football, especially in the Premier League, with astronomical players' wages and only state-of-the-art facilities on show.

But all forms of bringing in revenue are going to be reduced severely and, most importantly, even if fans are allowed back into stadiums, will they have the money to attend?

I've always said football is a great escape for many people, but recession is returning and paying for football will not be a priority when food needs to be put on the table.

It's a harsh reality.

Top-flight clubs will suffer - they'll no longer be able to afford having such a huge panel of players to choose from. They may have to settle for a reserve team rather than Under-23s and this could have serious implications further down the football pyramid and for Northern Ireland players.

If fans aren't allowed to attend or the capacity is capped at a small figure, some clubs will not be able to survive. I really fear we could see League clubs fold, that's how serious this is.

Squads will be a minimal number and we may even see teams being unable to fill their benches. They just can't afford to pay squad players.

And just think how many Northern Ireland players are on the periphery of the team at their clubs.

Sadly, quite a lot.

These players, who play for clubs in the Championship and below, are now under serious threat. There is no point masking over it.

Players may find it makes more economic sense to be a joiner or electrician as they'll make more in a day with a trade than as a professional footballer.

The last time the Football League took such a financial hit was when ITV Digital folded and all those clubs who had budgeted for the TV rights money had to battle hard to stay afloat. I'd just joined Lincoln City at the time and it was tough going.

When the players eventually return, they'll be fighting to survive in professional football. If they have a long-term contract then, of course, they have some type of security, but for a player such as Kyle Lafferty, who only signed at Sunderland until the end of the season, it's going to be a struggle.

Financially, clubs just aren't going to be in a position to have a big squad and that means our young aspiring talent in Northern Ireland, who hope to secure contracts in England or Scotland, may suddenly find it a much tougher proposition because the competition is going to be so much more intense and there will not be as many places at clubs.

That will obviously have a knock-on effect with the Northern Ireland squad. We need as many of our players performing at the highest level as possible. We can't always rely on Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Steven Davis and Stuarty Dallas being around.

And this is where the Irish FA will miss Michael O'Neill a great deal. He was great at talking to managers on behalf of players and trying to get them sorted out at clubs.

More than ever, players need his help and so whoever comes in to replace Michael will have to undertake this role and make it a priority over the summer. Yet I would urge young players to stay at home more than ever now and develop rather than being lost in the crowd across the water.

Play in a man's League, learn in a tough environment and, in a few years' time, things may have picked up and it will be easier to get a move into pro football.

While it's desperate for the English and Scottish Leagues, it could actually work to the benefit of the Irish League.

Due to the fact our clubs don't have the same huge overheads as across the water, the Danske Bank Premiership may bounce back quicker.

They will now be able to have the cream of the young crop at their clubs, more experienced players may return from England, the standard will improve and the League will become even more exciting and appealing.

In the short-term, it will not help the Northern Ireland senior side and I don't envy the new manager trying to deal with the mess when he takes over.

Football will never be the same again and, at this moment, it is a damage limitation process.

Club NI, the Irish FA programme for developing and nurturing the best talent in the country for a future in professional football, has been a great initiative, but the IFA may now need to work even harder to get their players to England and Scotland.

A tougher job than choosing the man to replace Michael O'Neill.

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Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill

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Michael O'Neill

Too close to call between our leading candidates

I can only see two candidates in the frame to replace Michael O'Neill as Northern Ireland manager - Ian Baraclough and Stephen Robinson.

I would love to add Jim Magilton into the mix, but I fear the Irish FA will overlook him and not want to move him away from developing the next generation of Northern Ireland footballers. He's done a great job with Club NI and I think he might be a victim of his own success.

I know Austin MacPhee is second with the bookmakers, but I wouldn't be having that, while I don't think Tommy Wright can push his way past Bara or Robbo (left).

The new manager must come in and build on the foundations laid by Michael. He has to constantly want to improve and not settle.

Players need to be inspired, the preparation has to be perfect and he will need to do lots of firefighting with Irish FA chiefs.

During his time in charge, Michael went above and beyond the duty of an international manager. Nothing was overlooked, from the grassroots game up. He knew as much about the players in the Under-14 and Under-16 teams as he did the Under-21s.

He was also a great ambassador for the Association, going out to the community and instilling belief in not just his players and coaching staff but the whole country.

Continuity and a seamless transition will therefore be so important.

Baraclough and Robbo have worked in Michael's set-up. They know all about the infrastructure in place and Michael's strategies.

They have great work ethic and experience, the players respect them and their training methods and they have worked together before with Oldham and Motherwell. So if Robbo was given the main job, there would already be a relationship with Under-21 boss Bara.

I think it will come down to the interview process and whoever does better on the day.

It's a tough decision for President David Martin, CEO Patrick Nelson and the board, but at least they have two candidates who tick all the boxes.

The next international games are scheduled for September, but I can't see them taking place if domestic football only returns in the summer, so the new manager should have until October before he has to play his first game. And, of course, that might be a European Championship Play-Off Semi-Final.

The recruitment process starts now, but I've already made my shortlist.

Belfast Telegraph