Michael O’Neill has said he always hoped he would return as Northern Ireland manager after he left to take over Stoke City almost three years ago.
O’Neill, who guided NI to Euro 2016 in their first eight-year spell, replaced Ian Barraclough after his dismissal in October.
The 53-year-old explained that there were a number of factors in his decision to return, including conversations he had with players.
“I was hoping I would be back,” O’Neill said.
“One of the things about being an international manager at a relatively young age is that it gives you the chance to come back. Look at Louis van Gaal, he came back three times.
“I think when you’ve done that job it’s possible to come back and do it again. It’s not really like going back to a club. When I left for Stoke I think the important thing as a manager is to do the work that is in front of you rather than looking too far ahead.
“I maybe felt like I would be in club football a bit longer, but having had that experience in the league and experienced the nature of it, I wanted something, it was probably a bit more. consistent with the opportunity to build something new.
“So when the position was vacant, it was my preference rather than staying at the club.”
When O’Neill first took charge at Stoke in November 2019, the plan was for him to stay and lead Northern Ireland into their Euro 2020 play-off semi-final.
However, Covid-19 meant the play-offs were delayed and he left in April 2020, leaving Baraclough to lead the team for what was ultimately a final defeat in play-off against Slovakia.
The former Coventry City and Newcastle United winger, who signed a five-and-a-half-year contract with the Irish FA (IFA) which he said he intends to see, admitted it remains a ‘what if ?” time for him.
“Yes, because that was a big factor at the time in accepting the job from Stoke, that I would be able to take that. [play-off] game,” continued O’Neill, who will keep former NI international Jimmy Nicholl on his coaching staff.
“It was an opportunity, more so for the players, and I think after talking to Jonny [Evans] and Steve [Davis]they felt it was an opportunity that got them a bit overwhelmed.
“But the good thing now is that their goal will be to fix that in the future.”
Opportunity for Hughes and McAuley to join coaching staff
Those conversations with senior players on the current team who played for O’Neill before – such as captain Davis, Evans and Stuart Dallas – were another big factor, he revealed, in taking the job.
“An important thing for me is the conversations I’ve had with the players,” O’Neill added.
“In 2018, I had a conversation with Steven [Davis], it was a big factor for me to sign a new contract with the IFA instead of going to the Scottish FA. I also turned down a few opportunities at that time.
“Throughout that time, in those eight years, there were opportunities to leave, but when I left I felt it was the right time, and I made those decisions on the good basis – the same way I made this decision on the right basis to come back.”
Looking ahead, the former Shamrock Rovers boss said having conversations with all players in the squad and building his new coaching staff were his immediate priorities.
And, while he stressed he has yet to speak about the possibility, he did hint at the possibility that two of his former players – Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley – may be involved.
Both were hugely popular players, with ex-captain Hughes having recently been appointed technical director of the Irish FA and McAuley currently coaching the Northern Ireland Under-19 and Under-17 sides.
“I just need to see where these guys [Hughes and McAuley] are in the coaching ladder, what is their vision and what are their goals right now,” he explained.
“I think it’s important to have good people around players and staff, so those are all conversations that need to happen – but I can’t say at the moment if that’s the right thing or not. .”
O’Neill wants to ‘reignite belief in qualification’
O’Neill followed Euro 2016 qualification with a stellar 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign that only fell apart in an agonizing play-off loss to Switzerland.
The success the team enjoyed under him from 2014 until his departure, particularly the number of games the team won at Windsor Park, made him a firm favorite with Northern Ireland supporters to replace Barraclough.
O’Neill changed the mindset of fans and players during his first stint and explained that injecting confidence into the current squad will help them capitalize on a favorable qualifying squad. Euro 2024 which will see them face Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and San Marino. .
“After my first campaign [World Cup 2014 qualifying]I had to show the players that they could qualify because I didn’t think they believed in it,” he explained.
“I showed them all the bands and said ‘this is what you’re going to have to do’. You always feel like you’re further ahead than you were.
“I think it’s a mindset shift on the part of the players because then we started to see a group of players who could win games late and win games being behind, things that they haven’t always done.
“Hopefully there’s still a lot left. It might need to be reignited a bit, but yeah, you have to offer them a vision and a path – and they have to believe in it.”
Given the clamor for his appointment, O’Neill acknowledges expectation levels have been raised – but insisted he was comfortable with it.
“Waiting is a good thing, and for too long we haven’t had it,” he said. “I think it takes away the advantage from the players when it’s not there.
“I remember having as frank a meeting as possible with all the players before going into the Euro 2016 qualifiers, and basically saying that we are not here just to collect selections.