Michael O’Neill does not have to study a group table to realise the significance of tomorrow’s Northern Ireland v Greece clash at Windsor Park. He only needs to look behind him to be reminded just how close he is to making history.
For there in the stand, for the first time since he was named manager of Northern Ireland nearly four years ago, Portadown-born wife Bronagh and their two daughters, Erin and Olivia, will be sitting in support.
Thirteen of the 14 players who played in our last two games were born in Northern Ireland. I am not a big fan of the grandparent rule, I’d only go as far as parentsMichael O’Neill
The O’Neills have made the trip over from Edinburgh, where they live, in the hope and perhaps expectation that Northern Ireland can claim the victory required to reach Euro 2016. Their presence confirms just what is at stake for O’Neill and Northern Ireland, who have been absent from the finals of a major competition since the Mexico-hosted World Cup in 1986.
Such an emotional occasion also underlines how right O’Neill was to accept a post even his own father advised caution over. Des O’Neill was conscious of both the politics involved in a manager brought up a Roman Catholic taking charge and also the downward trajectory of football in the province, something O’Neill was unable to immediately arrest.
But progress now seems unstoppable. One more victory and O’Neill’s place in history is secure. Little wonder his family are gathering in Belfast.
“Bronagh wants to be there, she wants the girls to be there,” said O’Neill, who is aware that no matter what the result in Belfast he will take his team to Finland for their final qualifier on Sunday. “For me, it is a weird one. You are preparing for this game, but you cannot lose sight of the fact you might have to prepare for the next game.
“We are on the plane to Helsinki the next morning regardless – whether we have qualified or not. We might have to go to the wire. We might not win against the Greeks. We might draw the game and we might lose the game then we suddenly have to go again.
“I have outlined that to the players,” he added. “There was a lot of emotion in the stadium for the Hungary game, when a win would have got us over the line [the match finished 1-1]. We lost our discipline a wee bit. We have to make sure we don’t beat ourselves.
“If we get a point, it’s not disastrous. Scotland are hoping results go their way just to get a play-off! We already have that, we are guaranteed that. We get another bite against Finland on Sunday. The worst possible scenario is another bite in the play offs. If we don’t get to the finals, we can only blame ourselves.”
Michel Platini, the currently under fire president of Uefa, could do with a friend just now, and he has one in O’Neill. Platini, encouraged by the Scottish Football Association, was instrumental in increasing the number of teams at Euro 2016 from 16 to 24.
“It was the first qualifying draw I was at but everyone turned up and thought: this could be our chance here,” recalled O’Neill. “If you look around the groups now, and I am sure Uefa will see it, there are countries who have never had the opportunity before. I think Uefa should be applauded for it. We are sitting here on the brink of qualification, but Iceland are already there!”
Not that Northern Ireland were in need of such a helping hand; they currently lead Group F, standing a win over bottom side Greece away from qualification. It is a pleasingly straightforward task compared to the one facing Scotland, for example.
The size of the achievement, if they do make it, cannot be overstated. It says everything about the challenges confronting O’Neill that he was able to meet last week on what was a Champions League night.
Sadly, like Gordon Strachan, he has no reason to watch games at such a rarefied level, although in Paddy McNair, the Manchester United centre-back, O’Neill might have reason to do so in the near future.
For the time being – and this is convenient for someone based in Edinburgh – O’Neill must do what he can with players of Scottish Premiership standard, given that this league is where so many of his squad are recruited.
Indeed, the diligent O’Neill recently watched two Scottish Premiership games in the same afternoon – Aberdeen v Celtic and then Dundee United v Kilmarnock. In the latter clash he was able to assess two strikers who are vying to replace the suspended talisman Kyle Lafferty tomorrow night, Dundee United’s Billy Mckay and Josh Magennis, of Kilmarnock.
O’Neill watched Magennis again on Saturday against Hearts at Tynecastle, perhaps providing some clue to his thoughts.
“I think Josh is only a player you fully appreciate if you get the chance to work with him,” he said. “If you go and watch games you might think: hmmm, I am not sure. He is the one striker I have seen in Scotland who has the physique and natural attributes to go and compete against the likes of [Virgil] Van Dijk.”
It is not a surprise to hear someone who spent so much of his playing career in Scotland, principally at Dundee United and Hibernian, being so positive about the game north of the border.
But O’Neill genuinely believes in Scottish football to the extent that he advised young players in Northern Ireland to look across the Irish Sea to Scotland, as opposed to England.
“I encourage our young players to come here because I genuinely think they will get a better chance to progress,” he explained. “I tell players who are 15, 16, 17 years old, if you get the chance, think about Scottish clubs. Tie it in with a university course – that culture still exists in Scotland, because players are not earning enough money to neglect what happens further down the line, whereas in England, you can be on ten grand a week even if you are not playing.”
O’Neill studied for an Open University degree while at Dundee United, much to the amusement of team-mate Duncan Ferguson, among others. But it was for his precociousness as a player that he earned recognition, leaving home in Ballymena as a teenager for Newcastle United, before becoming Dundee United’s record transfer buy at the age of just 20.
But he remains fiercely loyal to his homeland. O’Neill has an interest in youth development that seems unusual for an international manager whose worth, he knows, is judged on the results of the top team, not those of myriad under-age sides.
He describes international football “as the purest form of football there is”. Despite interest from former club Dundee United for their vacant manager’s post, he is happy where he is – and happy working within restrictions he has imposed on himself. He wants Northern Ireland footballers to be, well, Northern Irish.
“Thirteen of the 14 players who played in our last two games were born in Northern Ireland,” he pointed out, with evident pride. He describes Republic of Ireland’s approach to the question of player eligibility as “slightly unscrupulous”.
He remains adamant that Northern Ireland should continue to give those from the province a chance first, with the danger in pursuing players who have options abundantly illustrated by Jack Grealish’s recent about-turn from Republic of Ireland to England.
“I am not even a big fan of the grandparent rule, I’d only go as far as parents,” added O’Neill.
The saviour of Northern Irish football is also a man of principle. Rarely has success – if that, pray, is what it is – seemed so deserved.