Morning View: Whoever succeeds Michael O’Neill has huge boots to fill
Tonight should not be Michael O’Neill’s final match in charge of Northern Ireland, but as the last time he takes charge of his country in a group qualifier against Germany, it is the end of an era.
O’Neill agreed to become manager of English Championship club Stoke City earlier this month, but in a deal brokered between Stoke and the Irish Football Association, he will still be able to manage Northern Ireland in their European Championship play-off match next March.
O’Neill’s transformative contribution to the NI national team and to the sport at large here since his appointment to the job in late 2011 should not be underestimated.
Considering the wonderful job he has done, it is easy to forget that O’Neill was a comparative managerial novice when he first took over.
His previous managerial experience included spells with Scottish minnows Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers in the League of Ireland, not exactly a breathtaking CV.
But the achievements of this clever, likeable and charismatic man since then speak for themselves. The most obvious was, of course, leading Northern Ireland to the 2016 European Championships, the first time we had reached a major tournament since the World Cup in 1986. And only a contentious refereeing decision prevented us reaching the World Cup finals in Russia last year.
The current Euros qualification campaign has also offered plenty to be proud of. To finish third in a group containing heavyweights Germany and the Netherlands was no disgrace and a play-off win next March, possibly over Bosnia, would earn ‘our wee country’ a second successive place at the Euros.
However, O’Neill’s legacy will be about much more than just the major tournaments. The redeveloped Windsor Park has become a wonderful place to watch football, and O’Neill’s teams have played with style. Gone are suggestions that NI matches are unwelcoming for Catholics. O’Neill has been pivotal to all the positive change. His will be huge boots to fill.