Against the lure of leaving for a higher seeded nation in Scotland, Michael O’Neill believes his relevant voice in the Northern Ireland dressing-room was central to him staying.
O’Neill looked to be on his way across the Irish Sea after dazzling the Scottish FA in a three-hour interview last week but he eventually rebuffed the chance of succeeding Gordon Strachan.
The former Hibernian player, who lives in Edinburgh, has worked wonders for Northern Irish football — taking them to the knockout stages of Euro 2016 and the World Cup play-off in November.
That’s exactly the same record as his namesake Martin south of the border yet his feat has to be more commendable given the inferior depth of talent to choose from.
Now he’s got the UEFA Nations League schedule to prepare for. Yesterday’s draw in Lausanne almost paired his side with the Republic but he ended up with Bosnia-Herzegovina.
After six years in the post, the fact he’s still got the ear of his players is the key reason for him sticking around to build on the success of his last two campaigns.
“When a manager is in one job for six years, maybe players need a new voice and new approach,” O’Neill reasoned. “However, that wasn’t the case. I’ve had discussions with a lot of players since the play-off in November because there was time to weigh things up.
“The Irish FA were nice enough to offer me another contract extension straight after the defeat to Switzerland but I’ve also had approaches, not just Scotland. In fairness to the players, especially the older ones, they’ve all indicated their intention to play on.
“That’s a huge bonus for us because we need to find some new blood anyway.”
In contrast to the Republic’s empathetic exit from the play-offs, the North were undone against Switzerland by an unjust penalty call.
That Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan has since admitted the error is no consolation to the aggrieved boss.
“We all knew on the night that he’d made a mistake and it led to the only goal over the two legs,” he explained.
“The fact the referee came out and admitted it is neither here nor there to be honest.
“These days, there’s a lot of debate about the VAR (video-assistant referee) but we’d have welcomed it that night at Windsor Park. It was a cruel way to go out.”
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