Michael O’Neill is the Irish FA’s No.1 choice to become Northern Ireland’s next manager.
Following the sacking of Ian Baraclough after Thursday night’s IFA board meeting, key figures in decision-making want O’Neill to return to the position he left in 2020, believing he can repeat previous feats and inspire the nation to the European Championship final.
O’Neill (53) is out of work after being sacked by Stoke City in August and although he would welcome another shot at the club’s management, IFA chiefs hope he will be tempted to return to the international scene just like his mentor Billy Bingham. did so, enjoying great success a second time in the 1980s.
Six years ago, O’Neill became the first manager since Bingham to take charge of Northern Ireland in a major tournament in the Euro 2016 final. ‘Neill had qualified as a Pot Five side and it did for Euro 2024 qualifiers with a favorable draw in a group alongside Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and of San Marino offering the hope of greater glory.
O’Neill’s last contract during his first stint as Northern Ireland boss was £750,000 a year. Whether the IFA can afford him remains to be seen, but the former Newcastle and Dundee United player is the man they would prefer to replace Baraclough.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that St Mirren boss Stephen Robinson also has admirers on the IFA board, despite missing out on Baraclough in the selection process two years ago.
Robinson had dreamed of leading his country for years and former St Johnstone boss Tommy Wright and Northern Ireland Women’s manager Kenny Shiels, who were last interviewed, are believed to be interested in the job with the former Celtic manager Neil Lennon, surprisingly dismissed this week as manager of Cypriot side Omonia Nicosia, and Warren Feeney, currently in charge of non-League Welling United.
Other names mentioned include current Linfield supremo David Healy, Michael Duff of Barnsley and Grant McCann of Peterborough, although all three have hinted they would like the job in Northern Ireland in the future rather than in the present.
Sources suggest former Premier League managers Tony Pulis, Steve Bruce and Sam Allardyce, who had a short stint with England, are considering the vacancy with Northern Irish legend Aaron Hughes set to play a big role in the filling this role.
The IFA’s elite football development consultant, who is the favorite to be named the Association’s new director of football operations, is in line to act as an adviser.
Perhaps that is why there has been talk of former England and Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson, with Hughes having enjoyed playing under him at Fulham, even though that would mean the 75-year-old years would come out of retirement.
Baraclough was reportedly ‘disappointed’ to lose his job, but his sacking was on the cards after a poor Nations League campaign when Northern Ireland picked up just five points from a possible 18, causing serious backlash unrest among fans.
He was given a contract extension last December until the end of Euro 2024 qualifying but hasn’t had a chance to complete his £200,000-a-year deal.
In an IFA statement on Baraclough’s departure, chief executive Patrick Nelson said: “Under Ian’s leadership we have seen the introduction of new players who will wear the green shirt with pride for years to come. and for this we express our gratitude.
“However, in light of the overall record of results on the pitch, the Irish FA Board subsequently made the decision.
“We wish Ian the best for the future and thank him for his contribution to football in Northern Ireland.”
IFA President Conrad Kirkwood added: “I would like to express my sincere thanks to Ian for his commitment to the role of senior men’s manager. On behalf of the Irish Football Association and the great football family here in Northern Ireland, I wish him every success in the future.