Northern Ireland: Six potential candidates to replace Michael O'Neill as manager

By Richard PetrieBBC Sport NI
Michael O'Neill and Steven Davis
Michael O'Neill with skipper Steven Davis after his final game in charge - a home 0-0 draw with the Netherlands

Sometimes in life things don't go according to the script.

This one read that Michael O'Neill would lead Northern Ireland to a glorious Euro 2020 play-off semi-final win over Bosnia and Herzegovina on the road.

That would be followed by victory over either Slovakia or the Republic of Ireland in front of a full house at Windsor Park to reach a second successive European Championship finals.

The intervention of the global coronavirus pandemic meant it wasn't to be, however.

With the Euros delayed until 2021, the play-offs scheduled to take place in late March were put on the long finger, with October and November now the most likely months for the semi-finals and final respectively to be staged.

There were some raised eyebrows in early November when the news that O'Neill would take over as manager of Stoke City was accompanied by an agreement between the Irish FA and the Championship club that the former Shamrock Rovers boss would remain at the helm for the Euro play-offs.

There was also speculation - never confirmed - that he would also stay in charge for the Euro finals this summer should Northern Ireland have qualified.

The postponement of the play-offs until the autumn proved a bridge too far for O'Neill, the IFA and Stoke City and with O'Neill's permanent departure now confirmed, it is time to assess the relative strength of those most likely to attract overtures from O'Neill's erstwhile employers at Windsor Park.

Ian Baraclough

The current Northern Ireland Under-21 manager is considered the frontrunner, having emerged as the bookies' favourite in recent weeks since stepping up his involvement with the senior set-up after O'Neill took over at the Potters.

A League of Ireland winner with Sligo Rovers in his first year in charge, Baraclough also secured an FAI Cup success and a Setanta Cup triumph as he revived the club's fortunes when he took over in February 2012.

This was followed by a move to Motherwell, where he helped ensure the club's Premiership survival thanks to a two-legged promotion/relegation play-off win over Rangers.

Baraclough has been in charge of the Northern Ireland Under-21 team since 2017
Baraclough has been in charge of the Northern Ireland Under-21 team since 2017

The 49-year-old's stock has risen further as he guided the Green and White Army's youngsters to eye-catching victories over Spain and Iceland during his first campaign in charge.

His young charges finished second in their qualifying group for the 2019 Euro Under-21 Championships, narrowly missing out on a play-off place on the final night of the campaign.

The former Queen's Park Rangers player has already worked with many of the younger crop of the current senior Northern Ireland squad, including Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Jamal Lewis, Liam Donnelly, Jordan Thompson, Gavin Whyte and Mark Sykes.

This leaves many observers to conclude the ex-Scunthorpe United boss is as well equipped as anyone to bring through the next generation of talent.

Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson
Stephen Robinson was part of Michael O'Neill's backroom team at Euro 2016

The 44-year-old is another whose face is familiar to many of the present Northern Ireland squad, having previously taken charge of the Under-21s before becoming part of O'Neill's coaching staff during the Euro 2016 finals in France.

Lisburn-born Robinson won seven caps for Northern Ireland during his playing career and took on his first managerial role with Oldham Athletic in 2016, where Baraclough served as his assistant.

The former midfielder assumed the reins at Motherwell in March 2017 and guided the Fir Park club to both the League Cup and Scottish Cup finals in 2017-18.

His Motherwell side lie third in the Scottish Premiership, behind only Celtic and Rangers, and on course for a place in European club competition for the first time since 2014, depending on how the coronavirus crisis affects the final outcome.

In an interview with the BBC last year Robinson confirmed that he harboured ambitions of managing NI one day but added with a note of caution that he would "maybe let someone else follow Michael, because following that job might be quite a hard one".

Tommy Wright

St Johnstone boss Tommy Wright
Tommy Wright has been with St Johnstone since 2013

The former Northern Ireland goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach is another name thought to be very much in the mix to manage his native country.

Currently in charge of St Johnstone, the 56-year-old Ballyclare man cut his managerial teeth with Limavady United, Ballymena United and Lisburn Distillery in the Irish League, leading the Whites to a League Cup success.

The highlight of Wright's seven-year tenure at St Johnstone to date was a memorable 2014 Scottish Cup win, a 2-0 final win over Dundee United ensuring the trophy took up temporary residence in Perth.

Having endured a poor start to the season, Wright's side have recovered somewhat to lie seventh in the Scottish Premiership, nine points off a play-off place.

After O'Neill announced his intention to depart in November, Wright, while noting he was under contract until 2022, accepted that his name was likely to be linked with the vacancy, adding that his CV was "quite strong".

David Healy

Perhaps one of the outsiders, but Northern Ireland's record goalscorer, with 36 goals from 95 caps, would certainly be a popular appointment among supporters, especially with those who have fond memories of him dismantling the defences of Spain and England in his international heyday.

But the 40-year-old has developed into an impressive young manager, too, during his tenure at Irish Premiership champions Linfield.

Healy has won two Irish Premiership titles since taking over as Linfield boss in 2015
Healy has won two Irish Premiership titles since taking over as Linfield boss in 2015

With two Irish Premiership titles already on his CV, Healy led the Blues to the brink of Europa League qualification last summer, which won him many new admirers.

He has been patrolling the home manager's technical area at Windsor Park for four and a half years, but it's difficult to overstate the gulf in standard between the Irish League and international football.

With the World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign likely to be the last hurrah for several of Northern Ireland's stalwarts, the IFA may look to someone with more full-time football experience.

But stranger things certainly have happened and it's important to remember that O'Neill's last managerial role before taking the Northern Ireland reins was with a leading Irish club, Shamrock Rovers.

Austin MacPhee

Austin MacPhee
MacPhee had a spell in charge of Hearts following the sacking of Craig Levein

The former Hearts assistant has been part of O'Neill's backroom staff since March 2014.

The 40-year-old formed a key part of the coaching team that qualified for Euro 2016, before reaching the play-offs for both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020.

MacPhee lacks managerial experience, having been an assistant throughout his coaching career, bar a five-week spell as Hearts caretaker boss after the sacking of Craig Levein last autumn.

O'Neill rates MacPhee highly and said of his assistant in November: "What he's brought to me is a high level of knowledge on the opposition, a creative way to train, which is particularly important in international football, when you have a short time to prepare.

"And he's been creative in how he brought information to the players and how it has been communicated to the players," added O'Neill.

Jim Magilton

Jim Magilton
Magilton has worked closely with Michael O'Neill in his role as IFA Elite Performance Director

Irish FA elite performance director Magilton made public his desire to succeed O'Neill in an interview with BBC Sport NI in February.

The former midfielder won 52 caps for Northern Ireland during a distinguished international playing career, scoring five goals.

The 50-year-old managed Ipswich Town and QPR in the Championship between 2006 and 2009 and also had a spell in Australia in charge of Melbourne Victory in 2012.

He was assistant to O'Neill at League of Ireland side Shamrock Rovers but lost out to the present NI boss in a selection process to succeed Nigel Worthington in December 2011.

The former Oxford United, Southampton and Ipswich player was in charge of the NI Under-21s from 2015 to 2017 and as part of his current role is overseeing the new NI Football Academy at Ulster University which is equipping the country's young footballers for cross-channel careers.

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