Michael O’Neill has his sights set on challenging Billy Bingham’s record of taking charge of 118 Northern Ireland games after returning to manage the national team for a second time.
Bingham – who died in June aged 90 – also had two spells in charge, first between 1967 and 1971 and then from 1980 to 1993, during which time he led the country to both the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.
Northern Ireland did not return to a major tournament until O’Neill guided them to Euro 2016.
O’Neill knows that by signing a five-and-a-half-year deal to return there is a risk he could damage the reputation he built during his first eight years in charge, but he has bigger ambitions.
“I’m not after a statue,” he said. “I look back at the people who have managed Northern Ireland and there hasn’t been an awful lot and it brings home the significance of the job.
“I’m just delighted to get the chance again…72 games in my first spell was a good innings and if I can do anything and be here long enough to challenge the number of games Billy Bingham managed then I’ll be delighted as it would suggest I’ve done a good job.
“It is a special job. It was something that had I passed it over at this point in time then maybe in the future it was something I would regret.”
Far from damaging his legacy, O’Neill said he was convinced he could build on it by getting Northern Ireland to another major tournament, with Euro 2024 the first target after they were handed what appears a favourable qualifying draw – against Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and San Marino.
Although reaching Euro 2016 was the highlight of O’Neill’s tenure, there was disappointment soon after when their bid to reach the 2018 World Cup was thwarted by a controversial penalty in the qualifying play-off loss to Switzerland.
With several members of that squad still around, O’Neill is convinced Northern Ireland can contend again.
“In 2016 everyone said you need to jump now and I actually didn’t think it was (the time),” O’Neill said.
“I felt the campaign for qualification in 2018 if anything was as good if not better than 2016. To finish second in the group to Germany ahead of Norway and the Czech Republic, we had a brilliant campaign.
“We were obviously aggrieved by what happened in the play-off but with the ability to go again the players have proven to me they can do that and a lot of those players are still here.
“What we have to make sure is that they are focused and they believe because that will be the big thing.”
After the disappointment of the World Cup campaign, O’Neill led Northern Ireland to the brink of reaching Euro 2020.
Though he accepted the Stoke job in November 2019, he had planned to take charge of the qualifying play-offs before the pandemic saw them postponed and he stepped down. Northern Ireland went on to lose the play-off final 2-1 at home to Slovakia after extra time.
Having left Stoke in August following a disappointing start to the campaign, O’Neill was the first choice of both the Irish FA board and the fans when Ian Baraclough was shown the door in November, and that feeling of being wanted mattered to the 53-year-old.
“Of course that is a factor,” he said. “In football it is always nice when you are wanted, particularly when you have just left a job. I was probably eight weeks out of a job when the vacancy arose.
“I didn’t anticipate leaving Stoke in August. It wasn’t part of where we thought we would be.
“We had a difficult pre-season and with anything like that there is a bit of hurt, your confidence and other things so when you have that positivity and opportunity to go into another job it’s only natural that appeals to you.
“I just hope I can deliver. That’s the key and I believe that I can.”