Michael O’Neill has earned the chance to do whatever he pleases so the surprise from some quarters at his decision to take over at Stoke City won’t concern him.
It’s a way into the English big time for a start. It might not seem so right now given the team he is joining are sitting plum bottom of the Championship. Stoke City still have the benefit of windfall payments following their relegation from the Premier League in 2017-18 (worth an estimated £40 million last season). At the last count, their squad is estimated to be worth around £100m – probably more than either Celtic or Rangers. More importantly, they are not the kind of basket case club where O’Neill is likely to find himself suddenly out of work again. He hasn’t left one of the safest posts in the game to risk it all at a team such as, well, Sunderland, with whom he was once linked.
When I sat down with him a couple of weeks ago in Edinburgh for what has now proved to be one of his last interviews as Northern Ireland manager, he told me the kind of club that suited him were a Burnley or Bournemouth-type, big on local identity and where managers have been given time to prosper.
Stoke might have got through two managers in relatively short order but many fans argued both Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones were given longer than they deserved given lengthy poor runs. Stoke are locally owned by the family with the financial might of Bet365 behind them. Chairman Peter Coates is not a fly-by-night character. He is a lifetime fan, who sold and then bought the club back again.
Currently studying for a masters in sports directorship, O’Neill desired a project. He isn’t interested in a job where he is likely to be turfed out again after a few bad results. Also, he backs himself.
As for glamour, he’s never been drawn to it – much to his credit. Northern Ireland might be jousting with giants now, but they were international also-rans when he took over nearly eight years ago from Shamrock Rovers. Before then, it was dear old Brechin City.
He didn’t get where he is by being sniffy. And he hasn’t made a wrong move yet, including turning down Scotland.