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'I haven't given it any thought' - IFA chief not considering potential Republic tie as he prepares for post O'Neill era

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(L-R) SFA CEO Ian Maxwell, IFA CEO Patrick Nelson, BT CEO Marc Allera, Rio Ferdinand, The FA Commercial and Marketing Director Kathryn Swarbrick and FAW CEO Jonathan Ford at the launch of BT’s 4-3-3 Strategy.
Photo: Anthony Upton

(L-R) SFA CEO Ian Maxwell, IFA CEO Patrick Nelson, BT CEO Marc Allera, Rio Ferdinand, The FA Commercial and Marketing Director Kathryn Swarbrick and FAW CEO Jonathan Ford at the launch of BT’s 4-3-3 Strategy. Photo: Anthony Upton

Anthony Upton

(L-R) SFA CEO Ian Maxwell, IFA CEO Patrick Nelson, BT CEO Marc Allera, Rio Ferdinand, The FA Commercial and Marketing Director Kathryn Swarbrick and FAW CEO Jonathan Ford at the launch of BT’s 4-3-3 Strategy. Photo: Anthony Upton

Irish Football Association chief Patrick Nelson has admitted there was a collective 'sense of loss' within his organisation when Michael O'Neill quit his role as Northern Ireland manager to take over at Stoke City last November.

Irish Football Association chief Patrick Nelson has admitted there was a collective 'sense of loss' within his organisation when Michael O'Neill quit his role as Northern Ireland manager to take over at Stoke City last November.

Speaking exclusively to Independent.ie at the launch of BT's 4-3-3 football partnership strategy that involves the governing bodies of the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland game, Nelson revealed the identity of O'Neill's successor is not his priority as all eyes are focused on the Euro 2020 play-off tie against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

O'Neill will be back in the Northern Ireland dug-out for what he hopes will be two ties that culminate in qualification for a second successive European Championship finals and Nelson admits the talisman of his nation's cause over the last nine years will be tough to replace.

"When I was working at club level, the message to my managers was always to over-achieve compared to your budget. That is the measure of success and in many ways, Michael has done that," states Nelson.

"We don't have a budget like a club side, but we have a relatively small pool of players and Michael's job was to ensure they reached their limits of achievement and I think he did that better than anyone in our history.

"Michael generated a fabulous squad spirit and his influence stretched outside of his role as manager of the team, as an ambassador for our game.

"With that in mind, there was a genuine sense of loss when he moved on. We applauded him for what he has achieved and wished him luck in his new role, but clearly he is going to be hard to replace and that is something we will consider at some point later this year.

"There is no doubt he was a pretty unique person in our organisation. He helped us to achieve some special things and it was always part of the conversation that he would come back for the upcoming play-off games. We are looking forward to seeing him next month and hopefully after that, we will have a final few weeks with him at the European Championship finals next summer."

A possible 'Cup Final' between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to decide which nations claim a place at the Euro 2020 finals would arguably be the biggest game to be played on this island, but Nelson stresses he is not getting sucked into the hype around a match that will take place if both teams win their first play-off games.

"We have got two big games coming up, starting with Bosnia away and then hopefully concluding with a game at home to try and qualify for the European Championships," he stated.

"I haven't given any thought to a potential game against the Republic because all our focus has to be on the first game in Bosnia and trying to get through that.

"To have a home game against Slovakia or the Republic would be a fantastic occasion for us. They key is we will be playing at Windsor Park if we get to that stage and that could be vital for us."

The sustainability of the international game is a subject of real interest in light of the financial crisis at the Football Association of Ireland, with a reduced number of friendly matches limiting revenues streams and high profile club managers increasingly agitated by the timing of qualifying matches and tournaments such as the African Cup of Nations.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is among those calling for further changes to the international calendar, but Nelson insists major tournaments remain at the heart of the sport.

"As a national association, we know where our place is in the football world," he continues. "I understand that international matches if you are a manager in England, your focus will be on your club side and not how a national team might do featuring your players.

"That said, the World Cup is still the biggest tournament in the game and the European Championship are still a huge draw and attracts incredible viewing figures when it rolls around every four years.

"You only had to see the reaction our qualification for Euro 2016 had in Northern Ireland to appreciate the positive power of the game when you achieve success and that is our drive as we head towards these play-offs in March.

"The role of a national association has to be not just focusing on the international games, but also the domestic and grassroots of the game."

BT's 4-3-3 plan hopes to break down is design dot barriers to playing or supporting the game by creating a para and disability innovation hub entitled FA Playmaker that is designed to facilitate volunteering by allowing people not only to register an interest but also complete short coaching courses and other volunteers, setting a target to register 100,000 participants by 2024 and half of the total is earmarked for the women’s game.

"Football has a wonderful chance to make life better and more enjoyable for all the fans of the game and that is certainly one of the objectives of the Irish FA and I think BT can help us in that mission," he added.

"This is a coming together of a number of very good brands for a number of good reasons. For the four association to be working in unison on a joint project is a great initiative and to have a brand like BT behind us adds to reach."

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