O’Neill, pictured, has continued to enhance his reputation at Shamrock Rovers. Hibs, on the other hand, have declined. Now the understandable fear among Hibs fans is that O’Neill is out of their club’s reach. The club have overlooked O’Neill on as many as three occasions since he was first mentioned in connection to the post following John Collins’ resignation.
Hibs went on to form unsuccessful relationships with Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes and now Colin Calderwood. Not one of them was given more than 18 months to make their mark on the team. However, despite their troubles, it is understood the club could still retain enough prestige to attract O’Neill, who has also been linked with the vacant post at Northern Ireland. Few managers at O’Neill’s stage of his career could fail to be attracted by the set-up at Hibs, where a well-appointed training academy simply serves to intensify the feeling that there has been serious under-achievement at the club in recent times. Such a sense of potential being unrealised is another lure for an ambitious manager.
There are other factors in Hibs’ favour with regards to O’Neill. He retains affection for the club after a successful spell playing for Hibs between 1993 and 1996. The 42 year-old also still owns a property in the city so any re-location to Edinburgh would involve limited upheaval.
Hibs’ chances of luring O’Neill are improved further by his coolness when pressed on the subject of the Northern Irish post. Reports had all but installed him as Nigel Worthington’s successor. However, he himself pointed out that he was still in negotiations over a new contract with his club. The good news for Hibs is that this has still to be agreed.
O’Neill becomes a free agent in a matter of weeks, with a second successive league title having been recently wrapped up. It is Rovers’ first back-to-back success since 1987. O’Neill has already achieved a unique success during the current campaign by leading Rovers into the group stage of the Europa League, the first Irish club to have done so. They qualified by defeating Partizan Belgrade in Serbia, something Rangers or Celtic would consider to be a major achievement. Both Old Firm teams would also gladly take a European campaign which will have stretched to 12 games by next month.
With the Airtricity League season having ended, O’Neill has only two more scheduled appointments as manager at Tallaght Park – against Rubin Kazan in three weeks’ time in Russia and then Spurs in Dublin on 15 December.
While Hibs have been hiring and firing managers, O’Neill has been steadily building his reputation as one of the brightest young coaches in the game. When Collins parted company with Hibs, in December 2007, O’Neill was managing at Brechin City. He left Glebe Park for Ireland a year later. Although some queried the decision, O’Neill has been vindicated. It was a professional gamble in the sense that he had to give up a career in the financial services. O’Neill, who gained a degree in maths and statistics while at Dundee United, had helped found a financial services company in Edinburgh.
Having made the breakthrough at Newcastle United when only 17, O’Neill’s heart remains in football. Whether his future lies back in Edinburgh remains to be seen. It is, though, likely to be Hibs’ last chance to appoint him to a position for which he has long seemed ideal.