NOT many find their hopes of becoming a professional footballer dashed by exam results, but then Michael O’Neill was not like most footballers. Asked to train at Manchester City as a teenager along with compatriots Neil Lennon and George O’Boyle, the teenager phoned home to learn his O-level results. There was a problem – they were too good.
“My dad basically told me: ‘Listen, you are not going to Man City on a YTS.’ So I went back to finish my A-levels,” recalls O’Neill. However, Des O’Neill’s plans for his son ran aground when the 18-year-old was selected for the Northern Ireland international team. On the day he was supposed to be sitting his maths A-level exam at St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena, O’Neill was preparing to make his international debut in Greece.
Over 25 years later, he seems equally precocious. Now aged 45, O’Neill is one of the youngest head coaches on the international scene in Europe. Another graduate of the Jim McLean school of hard knocks, he brings some of this education to bear on his charges in a Northern Ireland side who are due at Hampden to take on Scotland a week on Wednesday. Crucially, he does not employ all McLean’s methods.
As much as he may sometimes wish he could send Kyle Lafferty to dig ditches, when there is only a very limited number of players to choose from, being canny is key. In any case, the unpredictable Lafferty is one of his prize assets. When several senior players informed him they did not wish to make the hike to South America for last summer’s two game-tour, O’Neill simply had to suck it up.
“As an international manager, your tolerance levels have to improve,” he says. “You have to have your strongest team on the pitch, however you do it. There has to be leniency at times.”
Although O’Neill was only just 20 when he signed for Dundee United from Newcastle United for a record fee of £350,000, he had already passed up one opportunity to join the club. After watching him star for Coleraine against United in a UEFA Cup tie in 1987, McLean made a move to sign the player. However, O’Neill snubbed him in favour of Newcastle, at the time managed by fellow Northern Irishman Willie McFaul.
“I think that was maybe why Wee Jim was as bad to me as he was,” smiles O’Neill, as he sits in a sun-drenched Edinburgh cafe. “He ended up paying five times what he would have paid for me. I had a choice of a few clubs, and Newcastle was the one I liked best.”
“But I went to Tannadice to meet him [McLean],” he adds. “I was very close to agreeing to go. But then I met Newcastle and Willie McFaul swung it for me. I remember my dad had to phone Jim McLean to tell him. I think he got a bit of a mouthful. Maybe I should have known better than to go there later!”
It wasn’t all bad at United, of course. O’Neill fell in with a group of young, talented tearaways who became known as the “new breed”. Despite initial suspicion towards this new record signing who was studying for an Open University degree, those such as Ray McKinnon and Duncan Ferguson grew to accept him as one of the gang, especially when he showed an aptitude for irritating McLean. This reached its apotheosis with a magnificently stubborn stand-off at the start of the 1991-92 season.
After scoring twice for United against today’s League Cup final opponents Celtic, O’Neill was quickly placed in purdah because of his refusal to sign a contract extension. He made only eight appearances all season. When the exile continued into the following campaign, O’Neill came perilously close to giving up the game.
“I made up my mind that I was not going to sign a new contract, I’d done my time,” explains O’Neill. “My beef was more around the playing aspect – I don’t think I was being treated fairly as a player.
“When I went there they paid a record fee and I had only just turned 20, I was a senior international who had played nearly 20 times for Northern Ireland. At times it felt like Jim McLean was trying to destroy me – that’s how it felt in that last year at least.”
A move to Hibs was facilitated by a managerial change at Tannadice, which saw McLean replaced by the less stentorian Ivan Golac. How did someone who, by O’Neill’s own admission, always had a little too much to say for himself, find Alex Miller, another reckoned to be firmly old school in style?
“I had three great years at Hibs. I always felt Alex Miller was fine. We had our ups and downs, but certainly in the years I was at Hibs, we played some great football; [Kevin] McAllister, myself, [Keith] Wright, Pat McGinlay in midfield.
“People said Alex was dour but I look at those three years and I think we finished third, fourth and fifth – I am sure the Hibs fans would take that now. At times his period at Hibs is not looked upon as favourably as it should be.”
Although he had already agreed a Bosman transfer to Sturm Graz, O’Neill could not resist the lure of going to England when the chance arose in the summer of 1996.
When O’Neill meets Scotland manager Gordon Strachan at Hampden tomorrow ahead of next week’s friendly between their countries – this unusual synchronised squad announcement is made possible because O’Neill is based in Edinburgh – it won’t be the first time they have shaken hands. “He gave me the best contract I ever had as a player,” says O’Neill, with reference to his move to then Premiership side Coventry City.
“Ron Atkinson was the manager but Gordon Strachan was the driving factor behind me signing,” he says.
Strachan took the reins shortly afterwards when Atkinson moved upstairs as director of football. Struggling to overcome a groin injury, O’Neill found it hard to break into the Coventry team. But he remembers being able to discern the influence Strachan was still able to wield on the pitch as he looked on from the stand or substitutes’ bench.
“Gordon was the man, he was hands-on with everything,” says O’Neill. “Big Ron’s input was minimal, he was almost a caricature of himself. But he still had real presence. They were a good team because Gordon played a lot that season, as he was still the best player at the club. I could see that. I was either sitting in the stand or on the bench; he got everyone going around him. He led by example.”
This is something O’Neill hopes he is doing now with Northern Ireland, who last week climbed eight places in the FIFA world rankings to 43. He is a manager hell-bent on reform, and not only because he is the first Ulster-born Roman Catholic to take charge of Northern Ireland in over 50 years. His father urged caution when he was offered the post. Not for religious reasons, but because the unenviable task of reviving Northern Ireland’s football fortunes could harm a reputation that was steadily growing after spells with Brechin City and then Shamrock Rovers, who O’Neill led into the Europa League group stages.
“A few older managers advised me to concentrate on the team, get a few results and get out!” says O’Neill. “But I didn’t see the job in that way.”
He prefers a more holistic approach. “It’s not easy but we are sticking to our guns. It’s the old club versus association conflict. Who owns the players? Who has their interests at heart? The stats are damning; our domestic clubs are not producing players who will ultimately become international players. That has to change.
“That’s the path I took, and it’s not a path taken enough now. Our league has to become more of a pathway.”
At first, it looked as though his father’s initial fears about risk of damage to his son’s reputation were being realised. At the start of the current qualifying campaign, O’Neill’s record was: Played 18, won one. But the impressive, articulate O’Neill has turned things around. Away wins in Hungary and Greece have Northern Ireland handily placed in second place in their group, with a vital qualifier to come a fortnight today against Finland.
O’Neill has an even greater shared history with their manager than he has with Strachan. Just nine years after he and former Dundee United team-mate Mixu Paatelainen formed the managerial team at Cowdenbeath, they go head- to-head in a high-profile game that could see O’Neill edge closer to becoming the first manager since Billy Bingham in 1986 to lead Northern Ireland to a major finals.
If they do qualify for Euro 2016, it will make days spent at a public park in Aberdour with a motley crew of part-time Cowdenbeath players seem even more surreal.
“Mixu was basically operating on his own as manager,” O’Neill recalls. “We had done our coaching badges together – we used to travel to Largs together in the Hibs van. He said: ‘If you want to come in then I would love some help.’ So I did that. I was working at Ernst & Young as a financial consultant at the time. I was on George Street in my suit by day and at Cowdenbeath in my tracksuit by night.”
On some occasions, O’Neill really was operating by starlight. “Just getting training facilities was always the challenge for these kind of clubs,” continues O’Neill. “There was a nice piece of ground near Aberdour, but it had no lights. Gordon McDougall, the chairman, said he’d sort it.
“Gordon being Gordon – he was very entrepreneurial – managed to get these lights that they would use at night on the roads when the roadmen were working. So he towed them down. One was electric and one was manual, and I always remember having to physically crank it up.
“We set the pitch up one night and it looked lovely. About five minutes before the players came out, one of the big lights packed in, plunging one side into darkness. It was like: ‘OK, we’ll just concentrate on keeping possession in one half of the pitch, then.’”
Having now returned to live in Edinburgh with wife Bronagh and their two daughters Erin and Olivia, O’Neill is handily placed to run the rule over Northern Ireland players on both sides of the Scottish/English Border.
As O’Neill himself acknowledges, he was also ideally positioned to become manager of Hibs in 2011 following Colin Calderwood’s sacking. The family relished the idea of returning to the city where both Erin and Olivia were born, and where they still had a house.
However, after a thorough interview in London he heard nothing back from the Easter Road club. While they did go for a manager then working in the Republic of Ireland, it wasn’t O’Neill they chose. For better or worse, Pat Fenlon arrived from Bohemians.
A perhaps last chance to recruit someone many felt was a Hibs-manager-in-waiting was spurned.
“It was one meeting,” recalls O’Neill. “A very, very long meeting. But it did not progress past that one meeting. The initial disappointment of not getting the job fades. You move on.” In O’Neill’s case, this has meant to potentially better and greater things.