Earlier this month, the European football’s governing body UEFA announced that the Euro 2020 play-off matches, due to be played in March and provisionally rescheduled in June, have been postponed indefinitely with a possibility of playing October or November. Few weeks following this announcement, Michael O’Neill stepped down as Northern Ireland manager after eight-and-a-half years in charge.
The 50-year-old, who won two league titles, brought back the nation’s glory in European football, leading Northern Ireland to the knockout rounds at Euro 2016, their first-ever European Championships. He hoped to duplicate the performance in the postponed Euro this year, while also managing second-division English club Stoke.
“After careful consideration and following discussions with the Irish FA I feel it is only fair that now is the right time for me to step aside,” he said, in a statement released by the Irish Football Association. Northern Ireland were due to face Bosnia and Herzegovina in a play-off, with the winner of the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia awaiting in the final.
“It was important to leave the association and team in the strongest possible shape in order to not only have the best chance of qualifying for Euro 2021, but allow the new manager time to build upon the success that we have had during my eight-year tenure,” he added. He also said that managing his country “has been an honour and an enormous privilege” and he will “treasure” it forever.
O’Neill was named Stoke boss in early November, but remained in charge of Northern Ireland since 2011 to lead the Green and White Army at the UEFA Euro qualifying campaign. He has previously claimed that being with the Northern Ireland at the same time Stoke City “wouldn’t be doable if you were doing it in September, October and November.
“As for my players, past and present, I would like to thank them all for an overwhelming level of commitment and professionalism that has helped to deliver so many unforgettable highs and great experiences for us all,” his statement added. He finished the statement by thanking his Northern Ireland players, the Irish FA and fans, calling the support as “incredibly humbling”.
Following O’Neill’s statement, Irish FA CEO Patrick Nelson in statement said, “It is within a unique set of circumstances that we bring our unforgettable chapter with Michael O’Neill to a close. His time as manager, as well as chief football officer at the Irish FA, will be remembered as some of the headiest for our fans and most successful for our players.”
“Now that we have a clearer sense from UEFA on their next programme of games, it is the right time to move forward in a new direction to give Michael’s successor the best possible chance of planning for and competing in the Nations League, as well as gearing up for those crucial play-off games that will hopefully take us back to Euros next summer,” the statement reads.
In December 2011, O’Neill helmed the Northern Ireland teams to their first ever European Championships in 30 years – and a place in the knockout stage in France. He also secured a play-off for the 2018 World Cup, losing out narrowly to Switzerland. In qualifying for Euro 2020, Northern Ireland were the closest challengers to Germany and Holland but were pushed into third in the final round