Michael O’Neill has no doubt he can get Northern Ireland to another major tournament after returning to the job a little over two-and-a-half years after leaving for Stoke.
O’Neill has signed a five-and-a-half-year contract on his return to Windsor Park, having previously enjoyed an eight-year reign which was highlighted by Northern Ireland’s run to the last 16 at Euro 2016, ending a 30-year wait to play at a major tournament.
The 53-year-old said the prospect of tarnishing his legacy if things go badly second time around did not worry him as he set his sights on reaching Euro 2024.
“There’s no concerns,” O’Neill said. “If the worst comes to pass and it doesn’t go well, I’ll have to live with that. I’m just approaching it with the same professionalism as I did last time.
“I’m not big on legacies. What we did in the first phase was we built a team that not only qualified and reached the last 16 but was capable to nearly qualify again.
“The objective is to do the same. If I’m not able to do it, I’m not able to do it, that’s the nature of the job. But I’ll try and do all I can to make sure that happens…
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe it was possible. Of course there’s an apprehension about it, but that’s important.”
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.
Out of work since being sacked by Stoke in August, O’Neill was instantly the Irish FA’s first choice for the job after Ian Baraclough was axed in October, reflected in him signing a contract that runs until Euro 2028 – when Northern Ireland hope to host games in a joint bid between the UK and Ireland.
“It shows a commitment, and that’s important,” O’Neill said of the deal. “The length is important because you have the immediate campaign, which will determine players’ mindset going forward, and then following that you put building blocks in place.”
O’Neill’s return has been welcomed by Northern Ireland players – crucial as the likes of captain Steven Davis, 37, and Jonny Evans, 34, consider their international futures.
Joking that he has told Davis he “isn’t allowed to retire”, O’Neill said it was “essential” senior players remain committed with only a couple of months to prepare before the first Euro 2024 qualifier away to San Marino in March.
“It’s important for me having those players involved, and I certainly don’t envisage having any retirements before March,” he said.
“It’s essential. All our preparation will have to be done in the lead-up, rebuilding those relationships with players, getting to know younger players…
“There’s not a huge amount of time, so it’s about nailing down what the team needs. There’s still a lot of players who are used to working under me and how I set the team up and it’s important that consistency is there because time is not on our side ahead of important games.”
Northern Ireland received a favourable draw for Euro 2024, paired with Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and San Marino, but O’Neill warned against making too many predictions.
“All the teams will see it as an opportunity, which will make it extremely competitive,” he said. “There is an opportunity there if we have good home performances and results and be difficult to beat away from home. That approach will be essential.”
O’Neill said he believes he is a better manager after his time at Stoke, when he steered the club away from the threat of relegation but could not turn them into promotion contenders as financial realities bit.
Describing the shift into club football as an “itch I had to scratch”, O’Neill said he is now fully focused on the international game as he targets a century of matches in charge.
“Billy Bingham was manager for 118 games and I have 72, so I’d really like to break the 100 barrier,” he said. “I’ve managed my country more than I played for it, so as a player I have some regrets! But with the way football is, I’d be foolhardy to look beyond the current campaign.”