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O’Neill ends Northern Ireland reign as virus ruins playoff plan


London (AFP) – Michael O’Neill has stepped down as Northern Ireland manager to focus on his role as Stoke boss after the coronavirus ruined his plan to remain in charge for the European Championship playoffs.

O’Neill’s eight-year reign was ended by mutual agreement with Northern Ireland chiefs following international fixture changes proposed by UEFA.

“After careful consideration and following discussions with the Irish FA I feel it is only fair that now is the right time for me to step aside,” O’Neill said on Wednesday.

O’Neill took charge at Championship club Stoke in November, but the 50-year-old remained in charge of Northern Ireland in order to see out the Euro 2020 qualification process.

Northern Ireland were due to face Bosnia in a playoff in March, but the game was postponed because of the health crisis, while the tournament has now been pushed back to 2021.

It seems likely that UEFA will reschedule the playoff matches deciding the last four places at next year’s European Championship after the first Nations League matches in September.

“I would have loved the opportunity to manage Northern Ireland in the UEFA 2020 playoff game versus Bosnia and Herzegovina and the chance to qualify for another major tournament, but the current situation means that this is no longer possible,” O’Neill said.

“It was important to leave the association and team in the strongest possible shape in order to not only have the best chance of qualifying for Euro 2021, but allow the new manager time to build upon the success that we have had during my eight-year tenure.”

O’Neill was appointed Northern Ireland manager in December 2011 and memorably guided his unfancied team to the Euro 2016 finals in France, where they reached the last 16.

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