Michael O’Neill returns for second spell as Northern Ireland boss

Michael O’Neill is back as Northern Ireland boss a little over two and a half years after leaving the job for Stoke.

The 53-year-old has signed a five-and-a-half-year contract which will run until Euro 2028 – a tournament Northern Ireland hope to partly host under a joint UK and Ireland bid.

O’Neill’s return will have Northern Ireland targeting a return to major tournaments again themselves as he ended a 30-year wait in his previous spell by leading them to Euro 2016.

O’Neill revitalised the Green and White Army between 2012 and 2020, inheriting a team that had won two of their last 24 matches but going on to win 36 per cent of his 72 games in charge – the best winning percentage of any Northern Ireland boss since the great Billy Bingham’s first spell ended in 1971.

The run to the last 16 of the Euros six years ago was the obvious highlight, but Northern Ireland also reached the qualifying play-offs for the 2018 World Cup – denied by a controversial penalty against Switzerland – and also pushed Germany and the Netherlands in a brutal group in Euro 2020 qualifying.

That prompted Stoke to come calling in November 2019. O’Neill initially combined duties as he hoped to finish the job of reaching the Euros via the play-offs, but once the pandemic led to the postponement of those games, O’Neill made way for Ian Baraclough to step up from the under-21s in April 2020.

O’Neill averted the threat of relegation to League One at Stoke but could not get them into the promotion fight as the club struggled to recruit, and he was sacked in August.

With Northern Ireland also struggling under Baraclough – who lost 14 of his 28 games in charge and narrowly averted back-to-back relegations in the Nations League – the stars aligned for O’Neill’s return when Baraclough was dismissed in October.

Michael O'Neill
Michael O’Neill led Northern Ireland to Euro 2016 (Nick Potts/PA)

O’Neill must persuade veteran stars including captain Steven Davis, 37, and Jonny Evans, 34, to stay on for one more campaign, but a favourable draw in Euro 2024 qualifying – against Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and San Marino – will give the opportunity for him to make an immediate impact.

The returning boss said: “I am delighted to be the Northern Ireland senior men’s manager.

“I am excited to see what can be achieved with this group of players and can’t wait to be in front of the Green and White Army at the National Stadium once again.”

Irish FA president Conrad Kirkwood added: “I believe Michael is the right man for the job. He comes to the role this time with the benefit of even more experience at both international and domestic level, which will have only added to his skill set and experience.

“With a positive Euro 2024 qualifying draw, I have no doubt the Green and White Army will get behind him and his team.”