Ian Baraclough is the leading contender to become the Northern Ireland manager after it was confirmed Michael O’Neill will step down to focus on a full-time role with Stoke City.

O’Neill was carrying out both jobs having been appointed by Stoke last November and had hoped to lead Northern Ireland into the play-offs for Euro 2020. However, delays caused by coronavirus have rendered the initial plan unworkable.

Baraclough is manager of Northern Ireland’s Under-21s and is well regarded by Irish FA officials. That no compensation would have to be paid for the 49-year-old former Notts County and QPR player will appeal. Baraclough also played for and managed Scunthorpe and Sligo Rovers before taking charge of Motherwell in 2014. He lasted less than a year at Fir Park and moved to the international scene in 2017.

The Motherwell manager, Stephen Robinson – to whom Baraclough was assistant at Oldham Athletic – will also be considered. Tommy Wright, the St Johnstone manager, has also been linked and the former Northern Ireland midfielder Jim Magilton, the Irish FA’s elite performance director, has declared interest.

The search is unlikely to go beyond that quartet, with a manager to be in place before Northern Ireland face Bosnia- Herzegovina in potentially the first of two play-off fixtures. That game, intended for March, could take place in October.

O’Neill spent eight highly successful years in charge of his country, peaking with qualification for Euro 2016. “I feel it is only fair that now is the right time for me to step aside,” he 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.”

Stoke, bottom of the Championship when O’Neill took over, sat 17th and unbeaten in four matches when their season was halted.

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