First minister joins tributes to Stoke City boss



If Michael O’Neill is as popular in the Potteries in eight years’ time as he is in Belfast after eight-and-a-half years in charge of Northern Ireland… the trophy cabinet will be creaking.

O’Neill has stood down as international boss this week as the coronavirus pandemic kept pushing back the Euro 2020 qualifying play-offs that should have been his swansong.

A match against Bosnia and Herzegovina – with the winners taking on either Republic of Ireland or Slovakia for a place in the finals – was put back from March to June and now until at least October.

O’Neill has always admitted it was impossible to juggle two jobs in the long-term and he had to give priority to Stoke.

Northern Ireland had slid to 129th in the world rankings as he steadied the ship but leaves them in 36th place. They reached the knock-out stages of Euro 2016 in France and only narrowly missed out on making the 2018 World Cup.

Tributes have come thick and fast, from players and pundits and politicians.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, who travelled to France to support the side at Euro 2016, said: “Michael was such an inspirational leader of the team and that allowed the fans to go and be proud.

“Euro 2016 in France was such a wonderful experience and Michael made that all possible. He gave us hope and allowed us to dream. It’s all down to him so I just want to say thank you.”

Long-serving midfielder Steven Davis told a story that will resonate to the job O’Neill has started at Stoke.

He told the BBC: “He’s been fantastic for Northern Ireland as a whole country and for us as a group of players. He gave us that self belief to go and qualify for a major tournament.

“We were going through a different period (when O’Neill took over) and seriously lacked any level of consistency to give ourselves an opportunity to qualify for a major tournament. Michael came in and made the players believe in themselves.

“He found a formula that worked for us in terms of getting results, everybody bought into that and then it grew from there. Confidence came back into the team and we showed what we were capable of. Michael was at the forefront of everything we did.”





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