A new era in Northern Irish International Football looms…

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It was announced last week that Michael O’Neill has been named as the new Stoke City manager, after Nathan Potter failed to improve on his side’s performance since the start of season.

Stoke  currently lie at rock bottom of the Championship and who better to turn their fortunes around than the man who lead Northern Ireland to the Euro’s 2016 Finals?

O’Neill returns to club football after an impressive eight years in charge of his National side but it has been confirmed that he will complete his duties with Northern Ireland in the forthcoming European qualifiers against Holland and Germany.

While confirming the departure of O’Neill, the Irish Football Association also said he would return for any Euro 2020 play-off matches in March. The IFA Chief Executive Peter Nelson told the media; “Naturally, we are extremely disappointed that Michael is leaving us, however we are delighted all parties have agreed Michael will be in charge of the Northern Ireland team for the games against Holland and Germany and potential Euro 2020 play-off matches in March.

“Everyone in the GAWA family is grateful for Michael’s inspirational contribution over the past eight years. After a difficult start to his managerial reign with Northern Ireland he honed an excellent squad and took us to the round of 16 at Euro 2016, our first major tournament in 30 years. And, of course, he also took us to a play-off for World Cup Russia 2018 and the team have performed extremely well during the Euro 2020 qualification campaign.

“He has instilled incredible belief among our players and inspired countless young people to play football and aspire to play for Northern Ireland. He has also given our wonderful fans plenty to cheer about in recent years.”

With O’Neill’s impending departure the question now is – who is the right man to fill these big shoes? Former Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley has said Motherwell boss Stephen Robinson is the “perfect person” to replace Michael O’Neill as Northern Ireland boss. He wrote in an article for his Sunday Life column describing how under his stewardship, Motherwell had a sensational 2017-18 season, reaching the finals of both the Scottish League Cup and the Scottish Cup, losing both to Celtic. He noted Robinson’s stats, 58 wins with the Scottish club in his 126 matches in charge, giving him an excellent 46% win rate and making him the odds-on favourite to take over the Windsor Park reins. Robinson also is no stranger for national football having managed the Northern Ireland under-21s and worked as an assistant to O’Neill.

Stephen Craigan, another former Northern Ireland player weighed into the debate, saying he feels the national squad needs another Northern Irish man to take charge, and he agrees with Gareth McAuley that Motherwell’s Stephen Robinson could be the best fit. He also suggested St Johnstone’s Tommy Wright should be in contention also. Wright acted as goalkeeping coach in the early days of O’Neill’s tenure but left to focus on his own career as a number one with St Johnstone. He lifted the Scottish Cup in 2014 and has held down the post for over six years. He knows the terrain very well after a decade in international football in his playing days.

Craigan told the media; “Stephen and Tommy are both in jobs, they’ve both been successful in their jobs over a number of years, so it will have to be an attractive proposition for them to leave club football and go into international football.”

Another name in the hat is Linfield boss David Healy, Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer and key man in some of the country’s most famous results, including wins over England and Spain. He took over as Linfield boss in 2016 and has delivered a handful of trophies including two league titles. Even if he is overlooked for the main job, he may be groomed as next man in.

Whoever appointed to the top job will have big shoes to fill. Michael O’Neill is back in action on Friday night when his side hosts the Netherlands at Windsor Park, kick off at 7.45pm

Place your bets here on Northern Ireland v Netherlands HERE

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