Here’s a piece of trivia for you: did you know that the same man was in charge of Northern Ireland at both their lowest (129th, September 2012) and highest (26th, April 2017) FIFA World Ranking? A certain Michael O’Neill…
The news has broken that Norwich City FC have held informal with Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill and in that instant, you could almost sense the collective hearts in mouths for Northern Ireland fans far and wide.
When I watched Michael O’Neill at Glentoran, he may well have been in the twilight of his career but he still showed evidence of being a top-quality footballer. Part of a team that won a League, League Cup and County Antrim Shield treble in his first season, O’Neill ended his time at Glentoran with 4 goals in 44 appearances.
Michael O’Neill made 31 appearances for the International side, scoring 4 times. The pick of his goals was undoubtedly his second against Austria at a (surprise, surprise) wet and windy Windsor Park, Belfast. O’Neill would be captained in this match by another future Northern Ireland manager and his predecessor, Nigel Worthington.
When he retired in 2004 Michael O’Neill took advantage of the studying he’d done in the early part of his football career and moved into the world of finance before returning to football a year later as former Dundee United teammate Mixu Paatelainen’s assistant at Cowdenbeath. It wasn’t long before O’Neill was given a chance at management in his own right with Brechin City in 2006, a spell during which he impressed the board of Shamrock Rovers enough to be given the reins at the South Dublin club in 2009.
A second-place finish in his first season with The Hoops was bettered by winning the League of Ireland Premiership in 2010 before guiding them to a Setanta Sports Cup (now suspended North-South cross-border competition) victory in 2011. His stock continued to rise as he became the first League of Ireland manager to guide a team to the group stages of a European Competition in the 2011-12 Europa League. O’Neill’s Shamrock Rovers side retained their league title in 2011. As interest in O’Neill’s services intensified he left Rovers in December 2011.
Shortly after this Michael O’Neill was offered the helm at Northern Ireland, despite not being an obvious choice for the job. All the media talk was about Jim Magilton and Iain Dowie but it was O’Neill who impressed at the interview – no doubt due to his unbridled passion and meticulous attention to detail that we have come to know over time.
Northern Ireland were in a rut having won just 2 of their previous 23 international matches, a spell that included a disappointing away draw in Faroe Islands and an embarrassing 4-1 loss to Estonia. O’Neill’s start wasn’t any sort of fairy tale as his first match resulted in a 3-0 friendly loss to Norway before a 6-0 hiding from Italy in his second match. Northern Ireland’s winless run would continue for a further 8 games but the sparks were there.
Michael O’Neill had a plan and was bringing a totally different style of play to Windsor Park – Northern Ireland began to favour possession, short passes and aggressive pressing. The signs were showing in spirited performances against Finland and Portugal amongst others. The breakthrough finally came in August 2013 as Northern Ireland pulled off a 1-0 victory over Russia at home.
In the following match Northern Ireland were on the verge of a shock victory over heavyweights Portugal before an implosion as O’Neill’s men were reduced to 9 men and conceded a 15-minute hat trick to Cristiano Ronaldo in the second half. Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty’s red cards cast doubts on their commitment to the cause with many believing both had continually failed to perform on the International stage.
A further 8 winless games, including a 3-2 loss to Luxembourg, gave the impression that Russia was a false dawn. Until the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifiers came calling in September 2014. Northern Ireland were dominant in successive victories over Hungary, Faroe Islands and Claudio Ranieri’s Greece before being stopped 2-0 by Romania. It was the first time Northern Ireland had won three successive games since early 2009.
As we know, Northern Ireland went on to qualify for Euro 2016 but winning their Qualification Group – an incredible achievement given they were in Pot 5 of the seeding for the Qualification draw! O’Neill’s men lost only once in their qualifying campaign, with a revitalised Kyle Lafferty notching himself 6 goals and Chris Brunt playing a starring role at left wing back – testament to Michael O’Neill’s man-management capability.
Another milestone was reached in November 2015 as Northern Ireland recorded their first friendly victory since March 2008! A superb Euro 2016 showing led to Michael O’Neill being awarded a MBE for services to football and the community in Northern Ireland. A strong start to the World Cup 2018 Qualifying Campaign already has tongues wagging about a possible place in next year’s finals!
The job Michael O’Neill has done at the National Stadium at Windsor Park is nothing short of incredible to the point that rumours abound that he might actually be able to walk on water! A man who has brought hope back to the crowds and helped elevate players to a level of performance they have never attained before.
It would be unfair to begrudge Michael O’Neill snapping up the opportunity of an attractive job in England – be that Norwich or elsewhere – for all that he has done for our team. For now the Green and White Army remain kneeling at their bedside every evening praying that O’Neill might just fancy his crack at Russia 2018 rather than the dugout at Carrow Road.