Northern Ireland face a fight to keep hold of manager Michael O’Neill regardless of how this week’s World Cup play-off with Switzerland pans out, according to former Premier League boss Danny Wilson.
O’Neill’s team will become the first in Northern Irish history to reach back-to-back finals if they can see off the Swiss this week, with the first leg in Belfast on Thursday.
That achievement will further enhance O’Neill’s reputation and boost a CV that English clubs so far seem to have paid little attention to when vacancies arise.
Wilson, one of just six permanent Northern Irish managers in the Premier League’s history, expects that to change no matter what happens over the next 180 minutes against Switzerland.
“I’ve got no doubt about it - when the campaign’s over with, whether they go to the finals or not, I’m sure his stock will be looked at very, very highly in club football,” Wilson said.
“It wouldn’t surprise me whatsoever if there are approaches made. Maybe not straight away, they’ve got to get this campaign out of the way. I’m sure Michael’s only ever been thinking about that.
“People will be watching his progress. He’s had so much success at a high level, with what’s available to him, his stock has gone a long, long way over the last few years.”
Wilson’s time in the top flight, which included spells with Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday, was during an era when British managers were far more prominent in the division.
Such opportunities are rarer now, yet Wilson thinks chairmen cannot overlook the fact O’Neill has tested himself against the best in the world such as Germany and Portugal in recent years.
“He manages against the pinnacle of world football,” he said.
“They know he can manage at that level, being against the best teams and you still have to prepare as well as you possibly can.
“It (a top job in England) won’t daunt Michael at all and it won’t impinge on people’s decisions or opinions of him when they look for him to go to jobs.”
Were O’Neill to lead Northern Ireland to Russia and stay for the tournament, he would become just the third boss to manage them at a World Cup.
Billy Bingham, who was in charge when Wilson and O’Neill were Northern Ireland colleagues, was at the helm on the previous two occasions in 1982 and 1986 and Wilson believes the current incumbent has a tougher task given the resources at his disposal.
“He had a lot more to choose from in terms of quality,” Wilson, who is taking part in Prostate Cancer UK’s Football to Amsterdam bike ride, said of Bingham.
“Norman Whiteside, Pat Jennings, all those, they were top stars. They were available at the time so in that respect it’s a little bit different. Michael doesn’t have that wealth of choice unfortunately.”