Alan Pattullo: Strange case of Michael O’Neill and Hibs

Few clubs in Scotland have endured trouble like Hibernian when it comes to picking managers. They even struggled to find the right formula for finding the right man. It got to the stage that chairman Rod Petrie promised to step away from the process.
Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill led the nation to the 2016 European Championships. Picture: GettyNorthern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill led the nation to the 2016 European Championships. Picture: Getty
Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill led the nation to the 2016 European Championships. Picture: Getty

Perhaps the most puzzling appointment followed the departure of Colin Calderwood, four years ago tomorrow. Hibs were “inundated” by applications after Calderwood left; more than 40, apparently.

From writing about the episode at the time, and taking the opinion of fans and other respected figures in football, I remember there was one outstanding candidate: Michael O’Neill.

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But the odds were getting curiously shorter that a comparatively left-field figure in Pat Fenlon, also working in Ireland, was on the verge of clinching the job, which is what happened. With all the will in the world, and despite featuring in two cup finals, it is not possible to describe Fenlon’s reign as a success.

But following revelations that O’Neill suspects allegations that he suffered from a drink problem put about by unnamed sources in Ireland – and, interestingly, within Scottish football – hampered his chances, perhaps we are now nearer to knowing why Hibs spurned a seemingly obvious choice.

Frustratingly for Hibs fans now looking back with the benefit of hindsight, he was also the easier choice. O’Neill, then performing wonders at Shamrock Rovers and a much-admired former Hibs player, wanted the job. It wasn’t even going to be expensive for Hibs. O’Neill was coming to the end of his Shamrock Rovers contract. It had only weeks left to run.

It wasn’t even as if Hibs overlooked O’Neill. Two directors interviewed him in London. For five hours. There was one snag: Hibs wanted their manager to be Edinburgh based. “Well that’s fortunate,” said O’Neill. He still had a property in Edinburgh and his family longed to return to a place they considered home.

As O’Neill acknowledged in an interview on BBC Radio Scotland’s Sportsound on Tuesday, he was entitled to leave that London meeting believing he was very close to landing the job – finally.

But he hadn’t banked on a whispering campaign alleging someone commuting almost daily in his car between Dublin and his home in Belfast also found time to develop a drink problem.

“I was appalled to hear that,” O’Neill told the programme. Geoff Brown, the then St Johnstone chairman, warned O’Neill that this damaging rumour was circulating in Scotland.

“Scottish football is a village – people talk,” said O’Neill. “I am not sure why someone would do that. I have a fair idea where it came from. Initially [it came] out of Ireland from someone trying to help someone else get a job…”

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There is a feelgood factor at Hibs impossible to ignore just now. Alan Stubbs has re-ignited enthusiasm as well as restored credibility at the club. But it has taken a lot of pain to get to this point, most notably relegation in 2014.

O’Neill has moved on with Northern Ireland, making it more likely that his next job in club management could be in the English Premier League. But he is entitled to feel confused, and hurt, by not just the rejection from Hibs, but also the manner of it.

When he heard the news of Fenlon’s appointment, he was preparing to take Shamrock Rovers to play an away Europa League fixture against Russian side Rubin Kazan. But he might have been in Siberia for all the contact from Hibs. 
No one can say they haven’t paid a price.