It has been just over two months since Michael O’Neill resigned as Northern Ireland manager to focus solely on his job with Stoke City, and we are getting ever closer to finding out who his successor will be with excitement rising amongst the fans and no doubt the players.
With interviews for the vacant post having taken place yesterday it has been said, a decision could be reached as early as tomorrow.
It has been confirmed that Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson and former St. Johnstone boss Tommy Wright were among the hopefuls interviewed and while the identities of the other candidates are still unknown, it seems to be a poorly kept secret that two of them are Jim Magilton and Ian Baraclough, with a mystery fifth candidate rumoured to be in the mix at the time of writing.
Robinson and Wright being interviewed is no surprise with the two having been amongst the favourites for the role since it first appeared likely O’Neill’s time at Windsor Park was coming to an end in November. Neither is a stranger to the international setup having both played and coached at various times for their country – Robinson is a former Northern Ireland U-21 manager and was part of O’Neill’s backroom staff at the Euro 2016 finals, and Wright was goalkeeping coach when O’Neill first took charge before being appointed to the St. Johnstone post.
Magilton’s name seems to have been added to the mix more recently, the 52-time capped former Northern Ireland captain was a candidate for the job the last time it was available when he boasted a not too shabby CV having done relatively well with Ipswich and QPR in the Championship. Since then, however, he has only had a brief stint in Australia managing Melbourne Victory, where he is the club’s worst manager statistically with a win record of only 16.67%, and he was also in charge of the Northern Ireland U-21 side where he won just one game out of 18.
He is however currently employed by the Irish FA (IFA) as an Elite Performance Director, a role he has held since 2013, so there would be no issues in terms of having to buy him out of a contract elsewhere and as a former Windsor fans’ favourite, he would be a popular appointment in some quarters, no doubt.
Ian Baraclough is certainly an intriguing option being considered as unlike the aforementioned three names, the Leicester man has no history with Northern Ireland beyond the fact he currently manages our U-21 side. Were he to get the job, he would be only the second man to manage Northern Ireland having not previously played for them, the other being Lawrie McMenamy.
He has been doing a decent job with our U-21s, turning around a side that had failed to win a game in the 2017 U-21 European Championships qualifying campaign and out of his 17 games in charge, has eight wins and only four losses. Perhaps a new face coming in with an outside perspective could be just what is needed, especially as we enter into what will likely be a period of transition for the team with some key players approaching the end of their careers, and the likes of Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes having retired in the recent past.
As for who the mystery fifth candidate is, that could be is anyone’s guess. Linfield manager David Healy has been among the names linked to the job and as a Northern Ireland legend, he would certainly get plenty of support. Coleraine’s Oran Kearney was also mentioned at one point, but I very much doubt the IFA will appoint from an Irish League club with the candidates available from elsewhere.
Jimmy Nicholl has not really been mentioned, but he was O’Neill’s assistant manager and was another who missed out previously when Lawrie Sanchez was appointed in 2004. I doubt if he would be in for the job this time around as based on other names mentioned, it seems the IFA are maybe leaning towards a younger manager with fresh ideas, but I would not be surprised to see Nicholl remain as part of the setup in some way.
Kenny Shiels is another manager with experience of managing across the water and has also managed Northern Ireland youth teams in the past. Shiels was linked to the job in 2011 but how far that went I do not know. Much like Magilton and Baraclough, Shiels is currently employed by the IFA as the senior women’s team manager so again there would be no obstacles to overcome in terms of other parites or compensation if he was being considered.
Other names thrown around early on were Sam Allardyce and Harry Redknapp, but I seriously doubt either would be interested or that the IFA would be willing to meet their demands but as said before I would be intrigued to see what a non-Northern Irishman could bring to the table in the role with an outside perspective.
Whoever does get the job will be in for a baptism of fire with two Nations League matches fast approaching in September, followed by our all-important Euro 2020 play-off against Bosnia & Herzegovina in October, though they can also be sure of the backing of the best fans in Europe!
Without much further ado, our writers have given their final thoughts on who they would like to see in charge by the time we take on Romania in September:
For me, Ian Baraclough is the man to take over at Windsor Park. His experience within the Northern Ireland set-up will be beneficial in the short-term and his knowledge of the youth setup of the national team will really help the long term stability of a nation that has come on leaps and bounds since Michael O’Neill took over.
If you look at Baraclough’s time with the U-21s it has been impressive, especially with a squad that is severely lacking quality, and any young star usually gets brought into the full international setup fairly quickly.
His side’s performances against Spain were noteworthy, losing 5-3 at home before beating the Spaniards 2-1 away from home.
His experience managing Scunthorpe United, Sligo Rovers, and Motherwell, so a step up to elite football won’t be too much of a shock. He would be a safe person to take over and if he can get the best out of the younger players in the squad, the future of Northern Irish football could be bright.
Unlike a club manager, the international boss has a set pool of players – no option to enter a transfer market. On that basis, we need someone who can get the most out of modest resources. Not so much someone who can talent scout, but an ability to be a tactical genius, effective communicator, and above all, level-headed. No room for getting too emotionally drawn in.
Taking that into account, I’m plumping for a bit of an outsider: Phil Neville. There, I’ve said it. Tin hat on and time for me to batten down the hatches.
I think he is about 40/1 to get the job, but he has had international and tournament experience. He understands what it is like to work intermittently with players, kept the England Women’s team high up the rankings, and has a wealth of contacts within the football fraternity to call upon for advice, should he need it.
An International manager posting is much more about actual man-management and getting the most out of the pool of players available to you than a club job would ever be. There is no opportunity to simply “buy in” another striker if your leading man is showing signs that he “couldn’t find a virgin in a convent”.
On that basis, club managerial experience may not be as important a factor as finding someone who can inspire a group of players due to his own playing record, or indeed performances for the nation in question.
All that to say that I’d be quite open to giving Jim Magilton a chance at the top job now. Jim was an inspirational character during some difficult times for Northern Ireland in the 1990s, always giving of his very best, always the man out there encouraging and cajoling performances from his NI teammates.
He has previous managerial experience, particularly with Ipswich Town, and served as assistant to Michael O’Neill at Shamrock Rovers for a season. He knows the current set-up at Windsor Park, given that he’s the elite performance director, and can readily step into the post and prepare the squad for some crunch play-off games in the not too distant future.
We took a punt on Michael O’Neill, which proved a masterstroke. Jim has big shoes to fill now, given Michael’s success, but he could be a very steady man at the helm as we seek to develop the next crop of young players to bring glory days to the Green & White Army.
I would be the first to admit I may be slightly biased in my opinion as he gave me my best day as a Distillery fan with that League Cup win back in April 2011 but for me, the number one choice for the job all along has been Tommy Wright.
I would say that Wright has a track record at perhaps having teams punching slightly above their weight. In both his seasons managing Limavady, they secured top-half finishes and in three seasons at Ballymena, they only finished outside the top half once by one position, he kept Distillery up against the odds before going on to secure a top-half finish and the aforementioned League Cup success under extremely difficult circumstances and the proof perhaps lies in the fact that all three of those clubs struggled for some time after he left.
In Scotland with St. Johnstone, Wright’s side only finished outside the top half twice in seven seasons and on one of those occasions they finished with more points than the team in 6th, but obviously remained 7th due to the Scottish Premier League (SPL) being split, they qualified for Europe three times, and in his first season in charge, he led them to their first major trophy with the Scottish Cup. In short Tommy Wright is able to get the best out of the players at his disposal which is exactly what is required of the new Northern Ireland manager.
Of all the candidates Wright has the most experience of managing senior players and had been able to turn our consistent results, I can certainly see the positives where Stephen Robinson and Ian Baraclough are concerned but for me the number one man for the job is Tommy. If the IFA feel they same way though they will need to move fast as Wright is the favourite to replace Robbie Neilson as Dundee United.
Well the guys have had their say, all we can do now is wait for the IFA to announce their final decision.