Michael O’Neill’s departure was inevitable – but did it have to be Stoke?

Is it really a step up?

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There was little cause for optimism among Northern Ireland supporters when Michael O’Neill was appointed manager of Northern Ireland on 28 December 2011.

The buzz of the Laurie Sanchez era had been well and truly killed during the bland spiritless regime of Nigel Worthington.

Results on the field were almost as poor as the relationship between the team and its supporters. Some players were considering their international futures. The side was languishing in 88th position in the FIFA rankings, sandwiched between Antigua & Barbuda and Uganda. O’Neill inherited a national side on its knees.

UEFA Europa League 15/12/2011
Shamrock Rovers vs Tottenham Hotspur
Shamrock Rovers’ manager Michael O’Neill applauds the supporters after his last game in charge of the club
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

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It was viewed by many as an underwhelming choice and, given the Portadown man’s modest managerial CV, it was difficult to argue otherwise.

Eight years on and Northern Ireland is a nation in mourning. Michael O’Neill has attained legendary status and will be held in the same regard as the likes of Billy Bingham and Peter Doherty.

The 50-year-old took Northern Ireland to their first-ever European Championships in 2016 and within a hair’s breadth of the World Cup finals in 2018. During the former midfielder’s tenure, the side climbed to 20th place in the FIFA rankings – the highest position in the nation’s proud history.

However, given O’Neill’s achievements with the limited resources at his disposal, it was inevitable the vultures would start circling above Windsor Park before too long.

EURO 2016 Warm-Up, Windsor Park, Belfast 27/5/2016
Northern Ireland vs Belarus
Northern Ireland’s Kyle Lafferty scores a goal
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Presseye/Brian Little

The Green & White Army are a realistic bunch. It’s widely accepted the vast majority of our managerial appointments view the Northern Ireland job as a stepping stone towards club management in one of England’s top tiers.

And so, it’s with a heavy heart we must bid farewell to Michael O’Neill who has departed for Stoke City.

He leaves Belfast with the best wishes of every Northern Ireland fan after making our dreams come true.

But we’ve been here before. Back in 2007, then-boss Lawrie Sanchez also felt it impossible to resist the lure of club management in one of England’s top divisions.

Much like O’Neill, popular Sanchez had taken over the reins of the national side at a low ebb.

Northern Ireland had endured the longest goal drought in international history. A staggering 1,273 minutes without appearing on the scoresheet. Not to mention 28 months without registering a victory.
Sanchez had been unemployed for four months prior to his appointment as Northern Ireland boss having been sacked by League One Wycombe Wanderers the autumn before.

BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM – MARCH 28: Lawrie Sanchez the manager of Northern Ireland shouts instructions to his players during the Euro2008 Group F Qualifying match between Northern Ireland and Sweden at Windsor Park on March 28, 2007 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The former Wimbledon star rejuvenated the side, restoring national pride and bringing the fans back in their droves. Victories over the likes of England and Spain gained Sanchez cult-status at Windsor Park.
The Green & White Army seemed destined to qualify for their first major tournament since 1986 when they topped their qualifying group for Euro 2008 with five games remaining.

Then came a phone call from Fulham chairman Mohammed Al-Fayed in April 2007.

Just as O’Neill has done now, Sanchez jumped ship midway through a qualifying campaign and took charge of Premier League strugglers Fulham. Just eight months later, The Cottagers sacked the 49-year-old following a run of just two victories in seventeen games.

Is history about to repeat itself? Is Michael O’Neill making the wrong move?

Stoke City are rooted to the foot of the Championship table after a disastrous start to the season under Nathan Jones.

SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 22: Nathan Jones, manager of Stoke City reacts ahead of the Sky Bet Championship match between Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke City at Hillsborough Stadium on October 22, 2019 in Sheffield, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

Perhaps the following statistic will give a clearer indication of where Stoke are at right now:
Northern Ireland have won more games than Stoke in 2019.

Northern Ireland have played 8 games in 2019. Stoke have played 41.

Not one Northern Ireland fan could begrudge O’Neill an opportunity to manage a club in one of England’s top divisions, but is this the best he can do?

With Northern Ireland on course for a play-off position having contested a group which includes Germany and the Netherlands, O’Neill’s managerial stock is only set to rise.

Surely he’d be better advised to hold off until the end of the current qualifying campaign – or at the very least until Christmas, when Premier League chairmen’s trigger fingers are a little itchier, before choosing his next destination?

Northern Ireland’s coach Michael O’Neill (R) and Germany’s coach Joachim Loew shake hands after the Euro 2016 group C football match between Northern Ireland and Germany at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on June 21, 2016. / AFP / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Since their relegation from the Premier League in 2018, Stoke are a club in freefall. Their 16th place finish in the Championship last season was justified and this season, things have gone from bad to worse for The Potters.

But perhaps O’Neill is the perfect fit for Stoke? The 50-year-old seems to excel in these types of situations. The club is on its knees and he’ll have limited resources at his disposal. It sounds like Northern Ireland all over again.

Everyone associated with Northern Ireland hopes that Michael succeeds but if it doesn’t go according to plan, I’m sure there’ll always be a seat reserved in the Windsor Park dugout for him.

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