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 IFA.
The former Shamrock Rovers manager has been chosen ahead of Jim Magilton and Iain Dowie to replace the departed Nigel Worthington at Windsor Avenue 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 footballing 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 Football Association of Ireland.
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-a-year given to his predecessor.
“I am a proud Northern Irishman who was fortunate enough to win 33 senior caps and it was always an ambition to manage my country. To be entrusted with the role early in my managerial career is quite humbling but I am confident that 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.
“That is how it should be. There is a huge amount of work to be done but with the right direction and the necessary passion good progress can be made.”
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 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. “The selection panel was very impressed with his thoughts and plans for football in Northern Ireland over the coming years.”
O’Neill arrived at Shamrock 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.
He had been strongly linked with a move to Hibernian job before Pat Fenlon was installed at Easter Road.
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 under way.
His first competitive match will be a testing trip to face Russia on September 7, with Portugal, Azerbaijan, Israel and Luxembourg also waiting in Group F.