Michael O’Neill has revealed the key role Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis played in him becoming the national team manager.
O’Neill, who this week brought to an end his eight-and-a-half year reign to focus on his job at Stoke, has been a big figure in Davis’ career, handing the midfielder 66 of his 117 Northern Ireland caps and being repaid with critical performances and goals – including the brace against Greece to secure qualification for Euro 2016.
O’Neill had already credited Davis with helping persuade him to stay on after Northern Ireland missed out on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, but as he departed this week, O’Neill revealed Davis was instrumental to him getting the job in the first place.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I was ready to do the job before I interviewed for it,” O’Neill said.
“It was only after a conversation I had with Steven Davis at the time, at Derek McKinley’s Testimonial dinner when we were chatting at the bar
“He asked me about the job and he gave me the confidence to go into the interview. I’d never really met Steven at that stage but he said he thought I’d be good and it did give me confidence.”
After a controversial aggregate loss to Switzerland ended Northern Ireland’s hopes of playing in the World Cup in Russia, Davis stepped in again.
“He told me they wouldn’t want to see me leave for another international team and that was important,” O’Neill said.
“Those players who have been there for that amount of time, you’ve got to draw on that experience.”
With O’Neill only having a small pool of players to pick from, he said his biggest headaches came when key players had to call it a day – whether it was their decision or his.
“Ultimately it’s a player’s choice and at some point they could say, this isn’t for me,” he said. “They’ll not be there. We saw that with the decision Ollie Norwood made and also Chris Brunt.
“When you are a small nation, that is very difficult to deal with as a manager. You still need those players.
“But for me at times, you are responsible for retiring players. It was very difficult in the early years for me stopping picking David Healy because of his reputation.
“We laugh about it now but David was at a point where he wasn’t playing club football at a level where he could then go on and play international football. Those are the decisions which are difficult to make along with trying to keep players onside.”
Though he was determined to seize his opportunity with Stoke, O’Neill will not rule out a return to Northern Ireland in the future.
But, having also served as the Irish Football Association’s chief football officer for the past two years, O’Neill said it might not be as manager.
“I do like the idea of being able to influence the game from a different type of role from being a manager,” he said.
“To have an influence on the game, and the game in Northern Ireland in particular. I would love to see Northern Irish football progress.”
O’Neill’s departure was a matter of time once he took the Stoke job in November, but given he had expected to have at least one more game in charge until this week, the 50-year-old said the idea would take some adjusting to.
“When I see Northern Ireland play again I will feel it a little bit more and there will be more of a finality to it,” he said.
“The team hasn’t played since November and looks like it won’t play again until September at the very earliest. You’re talking about a period of 10 months and I suppose that will give me enough time to get used to it.”