This is apparently no time for tearful farewells. Michael O’Neill’s appointment as the Stoke manager has not meant an immediate departure from Northern Ireland and the likelihood is he will remain on duty for the Euro 2020 play-offs in March. As is typical and legitimate for a manager who has enjoyed such success with his country, O’Neill wants to avoid continuing a dual role by qualifying automatically for the finals.
Victory over the Netherlands on Saturday would keep that dream alive heading into the final Group C encounter against Germany in Frankfurt on Tuesday. That the qualifier against the Dutch could be O’Neill’s last match in charge at Windsor Park is an afterthought for the man himself.
“This is the start of an incredibly difficult double-header and while we have an outside chance of qualification, we will do everything we can to take it to the final game,” O’Neill said. “If we don’t qualify through that route then hopefully we have a play-off to look forward to in March.
“It’s not been any different from any other week. I’m not one for big emotions. I’ll just try to prepare the team as well as we have done and I believe they are ready to play. The biggest thing is to try to get a result and take it to the last game.”
Having suggested he remained young enough at 50 for a second Northern Ireland tenure, he assessed the attentiveness of his squad. “The players have been very focused, more focused than they’ve been in the past, maybe hoping me as a club manager may sign them.”
This marks a whirlwind spell for O’Neill. Having been appointed the Stoke manager last Friday he took charge for a crucial win at Barnsley the next day. Bartering between the Potteries club and the Irish Football Association resulted in the agreement that O’Neill could manage Northern Ireland for a further four games. “That is the plan at the minute,” he said. But only, was the intriguing inference, at the minute.
“I was only a club manager for one day,” he said. “One day’s training and then played the game, so I haven’t had that much time to be a club manager. I’m still very much an international manager, while still keeping abreast of things at the club. But it’s an international window, so typically clubs function in similar ways and we have 12 to 13 players away in this international period.
“We had one 45-minute session before we trained for Barnsley and that was enough to make an impact on the team. Next week we will have three days of work before we play and typically when you come into an international you have three days to prepare a team, so preparing a team for the next league game will not faze me with three days’ preparation.
“I don’t think it’s an issue. The work which the players are doing [at Stoke this week], which has been set by me, is being handled by my staff and we’re pleased with what’s going on there.”
O’Neill delayed Friday’s training by four hours after the Northern Ireland team bus was caught in a traffic jam caused by a multi-vehicle accident close to their hotel.
There should be no lack of needle attached to game against the Netherlands. Ronald Koeman labelled Northern Ireland’s football “outrageous” and “terrible to watch” after salvaging a late victory in Rotterdam last month.
Steven Davis, who will win his 116th cap in the midfield, shrugged off Koeman’s comments. “I’d be more concerned if he had thought it was a great game,” the Rangers player said. “That would mean they had dominated and won comfortably.”
O’Neill said: “We could have been better in terms of being on the ball. But we looked at the last 10 games they played. The ball was in play for 57 minutes in our match, which ranked fifth in their last 10. Other teams were wasting more time than us, or possibly they [the Netherlands] wasted some themselves. We managed the game well, which upset the Dutch. They got frustrated.”
Koeman sought to explain his irritation was with the referee for what he perceived as inaction and not Northern Ireland. “If they take it as extra motivation, good luck,” he said. “I was not talking about the way they played. I have a lot of respect for the players who gave so much and were difficult to beat.
“Maybe I used the wrong words but it was about wasting time and the referee did nothing. If they find it disrespectful, I didn’t mean that.”