O’Neill out to restore pride in North

MICHAEL O’NEILL intends to “restore a sense of belief and pride” in the Northern Ireland national side after being appointed on a two-year contract by the Irish Football Association.

The former Shamrock Rovers manager has been chosen ahead of Jim Magilton and Iain Dowie to replace the departed Nigel Worthington and will begin work on February 1.

He inherits a side who failed to live up to modest expectations in their last campaign — which saw them finish fifth in their Euro 2012 qualifying group, ahead of only the Faroe Islands — and must also confront pressing issues of player availability and eligibility which caused problems for Worthington.

In the last couple of years Worthington was forced to deal with frequent squad withdrawals and injury absences, while the issue of Northern Ireland-born players pledging their allegiance to the Republic of Ireland became an increasingly thorny problem for the IFA — who have lost a handful of highly-rated youngsters to the FAI.

But, judging by the 42-year-old’s opening statement as national boss, he has an appetite for the task.

“I am honoured to be chosen to manage my country,” said O’Neill, who is thought to be earning around half the £450,000 (€538,000) annual salary given to his predecessor.

“To be entrusted with the role early in my managerial career is quite humbling but I am confident we can make progress.

“Northern Ireland has a strong football tradition but one that needs to be refreshed with some more contemporary success. That is my primary objective — to restore a sense of belief and pride in what it means to represent Northern Ireland so that our players will want only to play for their country.”

Names as diverse as Dave Jones, Avram Grant, Gerry Armstrong, Brian Kerr and Robbie Fowler had been linked with the job, but an IFA team fronted by president Jim Shaw and chief executive Patrick Nelson narrowed the field to a trio of former internationals in the shape of O’Neill, his Shamrock Rovers assistant Magilton and Dowie.

It was O’Neill, who left his post at Tallaght Stadium earlier this month after a successful two-year stay, who made the biggest impression, with Nelson hailing the former Newcastle player’s vision for the side.

“Michael was the standout choice from an excellent field,” said the chief executive.

O’Neill arrived at Rovers after a stint in Scotland with Brechin and won back-to-back League of Ireland titles as well as guiding his side to the group phase of the Europa League with a play-off win over Partizan Belgrade — the first League of Ireland side to do so.

O’Neill’s reign will get under way with a Windsor Park friendly against Norway on February 29, with further friendlies already agreed with Holland and Finland before the World Cup 2014 campaign gets underway. His first competitive match will be a trip to face Russia on September 7, with Portugal, Azerbaijan, Israel and Luxembourg also waiting in Group F.

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