Sammy McIlroy: NI in 'good place' after O'Neill exit, says former boss McIlroy

Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill had plenty to celebrate during his eight years in charge of Northern Ireland

Former Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy sees a positive future for the country in the post Michael O'Neill era.

McIlroy, who managed his country for three years until 2003, insists the successor to Stoke City boss O'Neill has an abundance of talent to utilise and a strong bond which must be nurtured.

"Following in Michael's footsteps will be challenging but there is a positivity among the players and they are in a good place," says the former Manchester United Stoke and Bury midfielder, who played 88 times for his country from 1972 to 1987.

"Michael did a fantastic job and his boots are big ones to fill, but whoever comes in will have fantastic support behind him.

"There is a squad there with some good players coming through. It is not as if he will be coming in and going to have to start from scratch.

"The new man will have a unit capable of competing and a very good set up in place."

Quality comparison

McIlroy sees similarities in the current squad with the one Billy Bingham assembled to win the British Home International Championship 40 years ago.

"We were underdogs in every game we played back then but it was good to see the underdogs come out on top because of our belief and battling spirit.

"Billy was a great motivator. His team talks and preparation were very good. Every player knew what he had to do.

"I believe the squad we won the British Championship with was the launch pad for the one which went on to qualify for the World Cup finals in 1982 and 1986."

Sammy McIlroy
Sammy McIlroy resigned as Northern Ireland boss in 2003 to take up the manager's job at Stockport

McIlroy believes the present squad has a similar mentality: "Back then the camaraderie was a key feature.

"It was not like a national squad getting together every two or three months. We were like a club team. Everyone got on well and we took that togetherness out with us onto the pitch."

McIlroy reckons the new Northern Ireland manager has a unique opportunity to carry on the excellent achievements under O'Neill, who took Northern Ireland to the 2016 Euro finals and to a World Cup finals qualification play-off.

Aiming high

"I am happy that expectations are high now. We know how far we can go even with limited resources.

"Over the past few years the squad has probably been the best we've had for some time with players featuring regularly at a high level, many have excellent experience at the top level.

"I believe whoever takes over has a good chance to keep Northern Ireland knocking at the door in qualification for European Championship and World Cup finals.

"Back in 1980 we beat Scotland at home, drew with England at Wembley and won the British Championship with a victory in Wales.

"To do that was one of the great moments of my career and we knew that night in Cardiff that we had achieved something very special for ourselves and the supporters.

"It was the start of a great period in our football history."

You can hear more from Sammy McIlroy on Sportsound on BBC Radio Ulster from 14:00 BST on Saturday 23 May.