Michael O’Neill has stopped short of confirming he will remain in charge of Northern Ireland until March in the likely scenario that they reach the Euro 2020 qualifiers.
O’Neill was appointed boss of Stoke last week but the announcement from both the Potters and the Irish FA said O’Neill would manager Northern Ireland for the rest of the qualifying campaign – whether that journey ends against Germany in Frankfurt on Tuesday or more likely next spring.
A number of players have expressed hope he would stay until the summer if Northern Ireland qualify, but O’Neill is wary of the pressures of juggling both roles and did not want to give a definitive answer on the eve of Saturday’s penultimate Group C qualifier against Holland.
Northern Ireland are all but guaranteed a play-off place, but asked if he would be in charge, O’Neill said: “That’s the plan at the minute.”
Pressed on the matter, he repeated himself once before adding: “I think I answered your question, I’m sure I did.”
However, O’Neill insisted the Stoke job – which brought a 4-2 away win over Barnsley in his only match so far – had been no significant distraction in the build-up to this international window.
“I was only a club manager for one day,” he said. “I’ve only been there one day, which was Friday. One day’s training and then we played the game, so I haven’t had that much time to be a club manager. I’m still very much an international manager, while still keeping abreast of things at the club.
“I genuinely don’t think it’s an issue. The work which the (Stoke) players are doing which has been set by me is being handled by my staff and we’re pleased with what’s going on there.”
Automatic qualification is still theoretically possible but highly unlikely since Northern Ireland conceded two stoppage-time goals to lose 3-1 to Holland in Rotterdam last month. That left them needing to record healthy victories over both the Dutch and the Germans in the coming days.
The most likely play-off permutations at present would see Northern Ireland playing away from home next year so Saturday stands to be O’Neill’s final game in charge at Windsor Park.
It is sure to be an emotional night given his achievements over the last eight years, but O’Neill vowed not to get caught up in it given his side still have something to play for.
“The week for me has been no different from any other week, it genuinely hasn’t,” he said. “We got the work done, the players have been very focused, more focused than they’ve been in the past, maybe hoping me as a club manager may sign them! They’ve been extra attentive.
“This is the start of an incredibly difficult double-header and while we have an outside chance of qualification, we will do everything we can to take it to the final game.”
Time is running down for O’Neill’s tenure, but the 50-year-old suggested he could one day return to the job.
“Maybe I’m young enough that in the future I could come back?” he said. “The thing for me is we have gone to a major championships, missed out on a World Cup unfairly and we’re in the running to try and qualify again for a major championship.
“That’s been done with brilliant application from the players. I’m very grateful for the job the IFA gave me, I didn’t anticipate doing it for eight years.”