When satellite television deigns to turn its gaze on Scotland’s Championship tomorrow at least there will be a good man with sound credentials punditising. Michael O’Neill played for both Hibernian and Dundee United and might have gone on to become the Easter Road manager – but for the fans who liked his style out on the left of the midfield, despite the 1990s impediment of voluminous shirts with clown-stripe sleeves, he was the one who got away.
He played in a side of more verve than history probably shows. It was bossed by Alex Miller and is often portrayed as fairly unexciting, despite the presence of Darren Jackson, Keith Wright, Kevin Harper, Pat McGinlay and our man – although O’Neill reckons the supporters’ real grumble was the bonkers one of Miller’s former association with Rangers. What did they think – that he was still in employ of Ibrox, a spy undermining the Hibees from within?
Under Miller and with O’Neill in the team Hibs finished third, fourth and fifth and reached the League Cup final, only losing to a last-minute Ally McCoist bicycle kick. O’Neill smiles when he thinks of the managers who came later and reckoned scraping into the top six to be an achievement. While often falling out with Miller, usually over the player’s desire to roam free on the park, O’Neill admired his attention to detail and tries to replicate it as manager of Northern Ireland. “Jim McLean, who I worked with at United, was psychotic about football but Alex was absolutely obsessed with it,” he says.
He’s looking forward to the fixture between two clubs for whom he retains big feelings. “I was pleased when Ray McKinnon got the job at Tannadice because he’s earned his stripes having started with Lochee United. But he inherited a bit of a car crash and Dundee United’s slow start in the Championship doesn’t surprise me. I still think, though, they can come back up through the play-offs.
“Hibs did really well to get Neil Lennon after Alan Stubbs left. Winning the Scottish Cup has glossed over them not being promoted and I think they’ve got the ideal man to help them achieve that this time. I know Neil’s motivation and he’ll have no problem falling out with players. He’s a straight talker but also an intelligent talker. I’ll be very surprised if they don’t go up as champions.”
So does O’Neill think, if he’d been in charge, that he could have been the man to end the Hibees’ long, long wait for the Scottish Cup? “I don’t know the answer to that. I was delighted they won it and very happy for Stubbsy that it was him.” Then with an impish grin he adds: “But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been the one to get them relegated!”
Such matters are not of great concern to the 47-year-old O’Neill right now as he continues to mastermind the resurgence of Northern Irish football from the unlikely nerve-centre of Edinburgh’s Morningside following their fine showing at Euro 2016. Unlikely because it’s so perjink and just about impossible for us to find a cafe not full of yummy mummies when we want to talk ruff, tuff Windsor Park.
But ideal in that he can catch the 7am flight to Belfast for a squad announcement and then nip back to see the family before driving down to Sunderland for today’s game with West Bromwich Albion and check on the form of Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Paddy McNair. The heroes of France are reuniting for what should be a memorable World Cup qualifying double-header: champions Germany in Hannover on 11 October and, before, that San Marino a week tonight.
The latter may not sound too tantalising but this tie will re-open Windsor Park, another big moment for the team from the North following the battling performances and lusty singing of the summer tournament. The stadium is controversial, or at least it was, as the completion of the new West Stand will change the complexion of a rumbustious arena which O’Neill says used to “creak and rock” and where once Linfield and Rangers tops dominated. These days everyone sports Irish green.
“Adidas have told me the Northern Ireland top has been their fastest seller this year – that’s a really good thing,” adds O’Neill. Beyond being good business for the sportswear giant, it’s a further demonstration of football as a force of good in helping bridge the political divide. In a pre-Euros poll, 71 per cent said Northern Ireland’s qualification – for their first appearance at a tournament for 30 years – had helped unite the nation. A follow-up survey would surely produce an even more impressive figure.
“The re-development of Windsor Park was like any project in Northern Ireland – the most complex issue you could imagine,” says O’Neill. “It was contentious. Some couldn’t see past the history of the place, the sectarianism, and wanted a new location. But I think we’re strong enough to deal with that history, to open our minds and, on both sides of the community, to embrace this fantastic new stadium.
“The team, the old place – listen, the past has been difficult,” continues Northern Ireland’s first Catholic manager. “But during the Euros the fanzone back in Belfast was jam-packed with 15,000 in it and everyone tells me the atmosphere was fantastic. The football team are really all that Northern Ireland have. Rugby is unified as are other sports. Now the team have built a really strong identity and they’re here to represent both sides of the community. Some people consider themselves Irish rather than British but I think what everyone can see are a team of Northern Ireland boys born-and-bred who’ve been on the world stage doing great things with the whole country behind them and that they’re eager for more.”
Some weren’t sure O’Neill would stay for the road to Russia. After defeat to Wales in the round of 16 in Paris, but only through McAuley’s own goal, captain Steven Davis voiced the worry their manager would soon be spirited away to club football. On the day we chat, indeed, the newspaper on our table reports on the vacancy at Derby County where you might imagine O’Neill’s name has been mentioned and another at Coventry City where he once played.
“You would like to think you’re being talked about,” says O’Neill, smiling again, “but the people who make appointments at football clubs seem to operate by a weird logic. I don’t know how the boardrooms of England view what Northern Ireland achieved or whether they fully understand how it happened given the minimal resources.
“There are probably ten jobs in the English Premier League I’ll never get and there are ten where I might be considered: the likes of Southampton, West Brom and Burnley were the posts to become available. But there are probably only six in the Championship that would put me in a better situation than where I am right now.
“One of the things I like about Northern Ireland is the control. I basically run all the international football from senior level down and I enjoy that. We’re not blessed with a huge talent pool but that’s the fun of the challenge. It’s a responsible job, too. I’m trying to protect the future of Northern Irish football.”
That seems in decent nick. What has been better for sure is the future of English football. So what does O’Neill reckon to Sam Allardyce’s fall from grace, brought down by a newspaper sting after exploiting his position as national coach for payment for meet-and-greet engagements? “I was with him a couple of weeks ago at a Uefa conference and he’s a football man for sure, but it’s disappointing he’s put himself in that situation. At the age of 61, to have worked for this chance and for it to be over so quickly – there’s an element of tragedy.
“There are so many middlemen in football now and agents of every nationality are involved in the Premier League who don’t think there’s anything wrong with business being done in this [cavalier] way. I mean, this happens in other industries. Do you think when people are after land that money isn’t changing hands? We want football to be pure but if we put aside the scandal of these next two World Cups, not that I’m disregarding that, then international football is the purest form left because it’s the least affected by money.”
O’Neill’s first experience of Windsor Park was in 1979 as a young fan thrilled to get the chance to see Pat Jennings, Sammy McIlroy and Gerry Armstrong in the flesh. “I was ten and my dad took me out of school for a Euros qualifier against England but we lost 5-1. That was pretty traumatising. Behind the goals was actually below them so we had a strange view of Tony Woodcock’s shots hitting the net. As a player I turned out there for Coleraine against Linfield, then in games for Northern Ireland. I remember coming back after some matches and there had been a terrible atrocity. The wounds in the country at that time were really raw. Windsor Park was a difficult place to play but, you know, I was always given good support.”
He anticipates great support for the team on Saturday for what will be the Belfast public’s first opportunity to see the team in competitive action since France, having made an excellent start to the new campaign with a draw away to the Czech Republic. If France was unforgettable for these fans it was no less so for O’Neill and his men.
“There were loads of daft moments. One was coming away from the Wales game on the bus with the players pleading with me to let them stop at a McDonalds. They’d behaved like monks the whole tournament, eating nothing but pasta and rice, so they’d deserved it. But we had to get our security guy up the front of the coach to okay this unscheduled stop. He got nicknamed Jason Bourne because of how he whispered into his microphone. We were given the all-clear but basically this small town had to be shut down for us. Thirty policeman manned the road-block and five guards with machine-guns delivered the Big Macs.”
Daftest, though, would be the question which followed O’Neill everywhere, at every media conference, when he was asked when he was going to give the inspiration for the Will Grigg’s On Fire song some action. This got a bit tedious, possibly because it perpetuated the idea of teams like Northern Ireland being novelty acts at big tournaments. “Will’s a great guy but in the Euros we couldn’t afford to carry someone who stays up front trying to score a goal. Josh Magennis gave us a bit more. I’d probably have played Will against San Marino but he’s unavailable because his partner’s expecting a baby.”
Before France O’Neill would sometimes get frustrated by genealogy checks which encouraged him to think he might have found a new cap, only for the player to not fancy turning out for Northern Ireland. I suggest his Who Do You Think You Are?-type research might have better outcomes now, but this time the smile is more rueful. “We need guys who believe that playing international players will benefit their careers. Premier League players don’t think like this. They’d rather nip off to Dubai for five days during international breaks; that’s the harsh truth.”
O’Neill in any case is careful not to stretch the concept of eligibility too far. “I think Scotland went too far down that route. I don’t want to bring in players through eligibility unless they’re a lot better than what we already have. Of the 14 we regularly use, 13 would be Northern Ireland born-and-bred. That’s been key to getting the people behind them.” In Northern Ireland right now that’s more than simply the public cheering for the football team. It’s about social cohesion and uniting a country.