Aaron Hughes insists Michael O’Neill has unfinished business with Northern Ireland who will do all in their power to fend off the bid by Scotland to make him their new national manager.
The Scottish FA agreed compensation with the Irish FA for O’Neill on Friday night and will now open talks with the 48-year-old. They want him to succeed Gordon Strachan, but Northern Ireland will not give up their manager easily.
Hearts defender Hughes, a stalwart in O’Neill’s side over the past six years, explained that the country are desperate to retain the man who guided them to their first ever European Championship finals in 2016.
That ended Northern Ireland’s 30-year absence from major tournaments – one of the key reasons the SFA want O’Neill at Hampden Park.
“It would be huge for us if we can keep hold of him with what he’s done over the last few years,” said Hughes. “Everyone looks at the senior team as the focal point but behind the scenes he’s helped build up the whole association.
“The Under-21s are doing well. His input through the years is slowly taking shape, not just for us but the whole association. It would be fantastic if he stayed.”
O’Neill has two years left on his current £500,000-a-year deal but has been offered a new four-year extension by Northern Ireland, believed to be worth £750,000 per annum. He has previously said he wanted his future sorted by the end of January.
He has been a wanted man after his impressive work as Northern Ireland boss, having been linked with recent vacancies at Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion.
After taking over from Nigel Worthington in 2011, he guided his country to Euro 2016 in France – their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup finals – but missed out on this summer’s World Cup after a controversial play-off defeat to Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Peru have confirmed they have invited Scotland as their opponents for their World Cup send-off match in Lima on 29 May.