They were streaming towards Nice yesterday. Rail and air workers’ strikes were not going ruin the plans of thousands of Northern Irishmen and women, boys and girls, as they thronged to see history made on the French Riviera. Poland provide the opposition for Northern Ireland’s return to the top table.
When Billy Bingham’s side fell 3-0 to Brazil in the Mexican city of Guadalajara in their last group game of their second successive World Cup, few would have thought it would take another 30 years for Northern Ireland to sample a major finals.
Great players have come and gone in the meantime. One in particular has gone: George Best. A supporter travelling to Nice via Lyon yesterday wore a top with the great man’s name inscribed beneath the badge of his Northern Ireland shirt and the dates: 1946 to 2005.
It’s just a shame Best did not live to see O’Neill inspire such a striking upswing in Northern Ireland’s fortunes. Best will have recollected O’Neill as a player who made 31 international appearances for Northern Ireland – just six fewer than he did. But the former Dundee United and Hibs striker was still some way from making his way in management when Belfast’s most famous son passed away 11 years ago.
Indeed, O’Neill had then only just hung up his boots after a short spell at Ayr United that proved it was no longer any use fighting a groin injury. He had already begun a career in financial services as he looked beyond what he admitted was a fairly anti-climatic end to his career.
“With work to think about and young family, I could not motivate myself, I knew that,” he told me last year. “I left Ayr in October and that was it. I can’t even remember my last game. It wasn’t memorable. There was no lap of honour, no throwing my boots to the crowd.”
Ten years later, O’Neill was the one being tossed in the air by joyous players after Northern Ireland clinched qualification as group winners with a 3-1 victory over Greece last October. But where did this incredible journey really start for O’Neill? He assisted Mixu Paatelainen for a spell at Cowdenbeath before, in 2006, resolving to make a late bid to secure the vacant Brechin City post.
“As a committee we decided we wanted to go for a young manager making their way in the game,” recalled Brechin chairman Ken Ferguson yesterday. “To be fair Michael came to the process quite late, we had actually done our interviews. We were very close to making an appointment”
O’Neill threw his hat into the ring though a friend and former Dundee United teammate Grant Johnson, then a player at Brechin. “I remember it clearly,” says Ferguson of the first time they met to discuss O’Neill’s application. The hotel where they met in 2006 – the Hilton on Dundee’s waterfront – has since been demolished.
“He had done his homework, knew our players and strengths and basically he had put in a lot of work before coming to the meeting. We saw enough to convince us he was right for the job.
“It became very clear very soon he was going to be a good manager at a good level. He put together a great team for us. He had strong relationships with the players and I think that is now in evidence with the Northern Ireland job. He gets the best out of players.”
“As a small club like Brechin we are obviously pleased to have him on our CV.” he added. “But even more recently there’s been Ray McKinnon, who is another manager we got started.”
O’Neill might never have reached where he is today had Ferguson reacted to the advice of one disgruntled supporter to sack the manager. Six defeats in eight games in the first half of the 2007/08 season was too much for one fan to bear.
“I don’t think Michael will mind me saying, but I remember filling up my car one day at the local petrol station and one of our long-time supporters came up and lambasted me,” said Ferguson.
“He basically said: ‘He will never do the job, you are going to have to get rid of him’.
“I must admit I take a bit of pleasure when I see that individual now. I think it was an injury situation and we hit a bad run of form but it didn’t last too long.”
Ferguson still sees this particular supporter around. “I am not mentioning any names. I am not sure he actually thinks he was wrong. I will leave it at that.”
But there’s no denying the goodwill towards O’Neill from this corner of Angus. Ferguson is among those cheering for Northern Ireland. “I have just been setting up some apps on the phone for the Euros and it asked which team you wanted to follow. Northern Ireland are one of the ones, indeed the only one, I have chosen.”
“We are very proud,” he added. “But I don’t think we can take too much credit. It’s the man himself.”
O’Neill will surely have thought of those like Ferguson, who all put their trust in him as he takes another huge stride in his managerial career this evening. Perhaps he will take the time to remember Jim McLean, his manager at Dundee United. McLean paid a record fee for him from Newcastle United but then sidelined him for nearly a year when he refused to sign a new contract. The experience almost broke O’Neill.
He might even salute Rod Petrie, the Hibs chairman who so persistently passed up chances to employ him as manager, thereby allowing O’Neill to chart a perhaps unlikely course to Northern Ireland position, via a successful spell at Shamrock Rovers. But such figures will melt from his thoughts as he observes the Green Army filling the stands of the Allianz Riviera this evening. This is Northern Ireland’s night.
“I’ll be composed and calm, same as I am at any other game,” O’Neill said last night. “I’ll be immensely proud when we get to the stadium and see it all. Our work is done.
“We’re here because we deserve to be here. We shouldn’t feel lucky to be part of it, or overly proud to be here.”