Michael O'Neill on rejecting Scotland, steering Northern Ireland new breed, Aberdeen link and Kevin Keegan Hibs interest

Exclusive interview lifts lid on SFA talks and how dream Newcastle move fell through

Around 35 years ago, a changing of the guard was underway at Dundee United. A young, thrusting and evidently talented group of footballers were creating some elbow room for themselves at Tannadice Park at the expense of some older, more established stars.

The likes of Ray McKinnon, Andy McLaren and Duncan Ferguson were coming through. They even coined a name for themselves – the New Breed.

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“More like half breed!” Michael O’Neill once suggested. His own abundant talent and relative youth – he signed for United aged 20 – qualified him for membership of the gang. However, an appetite for study – he was studying for a Maths A-Level when he arrived – meant he was initially viewed with some suspicion by his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he joined them in testing Jim McLean's brittle patience, with the irascible manager even putting O'Neill out of the game for a spell after he refused to sign a new contract.

Michael O'Neill in action for Dundee Utd in 1993.Michael O'Neill in action for Dundee Utd in 1993.
Michael O'Neill in action for Dundee Utd in 1993.

It's somewhat tickling, therefore, to note that O'Neill himself is now occupying the McLean role in that he is charged with steering a new wave of young talent. Through a combination of good fortune and design – the Irish FA’s JD Academy, a full-time residential academy, is now reaping dividends – his prospects in his second spell as Northern Ireland's national team manager have brightened significantly, with players such as Conor Bradley at Liverpool and Rangers winger Ross McCausland leading the charge.

Scotland are set to tackle this ‘new' Northern Ireland at Hampden on Tuesday. Spare a thought for Tommy Wright, Northern Ireland’s Under-21 manager, whose best players have all been nabbed by O’Neill, including the ultra-impressive 20-year-old Liverpool full-back Bradley.

“I saw him last year on loan at Bolton," says O'Neill, speaking in an Edinburgh café last week. "He was terrific but even when you are watching him, you are watching him play League One. You are not really thinking he will be playing against Manchester City in the game of the season the following year.

“Obviously there’s the (injury) situation with Trent Alexander-Arnold, it's a bit of that. But I think he has done so well at Liverpool since he came in, he has looked comfortable. He looks like he belongs at that level – and Liverpool v Manchester City is probably the highest level of game you can get, comparable to a Champions League final.”

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill turned down the chance to manage Scotland in 2018. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill turned down the chance to manage Scotland in 2018. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill turned down the chance to manage Scotland in 2018. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

As for McCausland, O’Neill recalls seeing him score at Spartans for Rangers B: “Clearly the manager (Philippe Clement) trusts him because he plays a lot. And unusually for a wide player, he finishes a lot of games – nowadays they are the ones who are playing 70-20 a lot of the time. He has been involved in a lot of Rangers goals, maybe not the final assist pass but in a lot of the play. Rangers have got a real player on their hands."

Unlike that golden generation at Tannadice, the likes of Bradley and McCausland do not seem the type to give O’Neill sleepless nights due to their behaviour. It might be one reason why he feels able to resist any overtures from clubs hoping to persuade him away from international football for a second time, with speculation recently linking the 54-year-old with Aberdeen.

O’Neill says he has learned to focus on the job he’s in rather than look for the next opportunity, something he was prone to do as a player.

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Never mind Aberdeen, where he played a handful of games on loan in 1998. Had O’Neill signed on the dotted line in 2018 as the SFA wanted him to do following a parting of ways with Gordon Strachan, he might have been occupying the home dugout instead of Steve Clarke on Tuesday.

Michael O'Neill has taken charge of Northern Ireland for a second time but remains open to a return to club football. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)Michael O'Neill has taken charge of Northern Ireland for a second time but remains open to a return to club football. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Michael O'Neill has taken charge of Northern Ireland for a second time but remains open to a return to club football. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Alex McLeish returned for a second spell in charge after O’Neill turned the opportunity down, with Clarke arriving 14 months later.

"At that time, I had been an international manager for six years," O'Neill reflects. "I had been linked with quite a lot of jobs. It was probably the time when I was starting to look at those opportunities. We had been beaten in a World Cup play-off (v Switzerland) very unfairly.

"I had a long conversation with Steven Davis, in particular, about it, who reinforced to me what the players’ thoughts were. And I was able to sign a new contract with Northern Ireland that would give me an exit – I could not do that with Scotland.

"I wouldn’t have wanted to take the Scotland job and then a year later I am away down to England. Alex (McLeish) did that and that made it difficult for him the second time when he came back. I didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t like the SFA had untold riches to convince me to take it. The approach was very respectful, there was no problem – the conversations were good.

"The team was in a different place obviously – a much different place. You were probably thinking, 'this is going to take a bit of time'."

As a player, he remembers always being in a rush, perhaps understandably given the way everything seemed to happen so quickly for him. "It started with a bang," he says. He broke through at Newcastle United and was top goalscorer when he was just 18.

"At that time, Gazza had just gone to Tottenham, everyone was saying I was going to Liverpool and all these kinds of places," he recalls. "And then two years later you are playing for Dundee United, no disrespect to Dundee United. But you are always thinking in your head what’s the next phase…? I remember being at Hibs and I was close to going back to Newcastle, which would have been a dream for me. And they did something else last minute. That was the nature of football."

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It was 1995 – O'Neill's second season at Easter Road – when Kevin Keegan made some initial enquires on the way to building a team that just lost out to Manchester United in a memorable title race.

"You think things are going to happen, sometimes they don’t," continues O'Neill. "You make decisions. I don’t really look back (with regret)…there has to be an element of that but not to the point where I think about it all the time. I am back enjoying this job. It’s much more than a job to me because I have an influence on Northern Ireland football. We are constantly trying to improve on all levels. When you are the national team manager somewhere like Scotland, you are just the national team manager. The SFA is a bigger organisation, it’s a bigger football country, bigger population, better structure."

Although based back in central Edinburgh, where his younger daughter Olivia is finishing school, O'Neill spends a lot of time travelling to watch English football. It’s where many of his squad play, often lower down the pyramid than he might like.

“Having played in the Premier League up here for half of my career….I do still watch a lot of Scottish football,” he says. “I don’t have to have a Northern Ireland player playing. We don’t have as many players up here as we used to have…I send Jimmy (Nicholl) now! And I go to England.

"He (Nicholl) is on the ground, he basically has a season ticket for Kilmarnock and St Mirren, because that’s where most of our (Scottish-based) players are. And now we have Ross McCausland breaking through. Any excuse to go back to Rangers, Jimmy loves it!

"I watch a lot of League One football predominantly, because those are the players on the fringes of our squad. It gives you a broad base. If I did go into club management again at some point I know a lot about English football, even down as far as League two, non league – you have to know.”

On the subject of club football, might a return to day-to-day involvement be imminent for O’Neill? Aberdeen’s search for a new manager remains on-going. Even if there was desire on the part of both parties to do something, O'Neill's contractual situation with the Irish FA – he signed a bumper, five-and-a-half year deal in December 2022 – would surely prove an insurmountable obstacle, with the compensation package alone likely to be a deal-breaker.

O'Neill is open-minded while indicating that he might prefer a more all-encompassing role to that of manager should he ever return to the club game. A difficult spell at Stoke City opened his eyes to the way a club should – and should not – function.

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“It is not something I would ever rule out,” he says. “As I say, do the job you’re in and if another opportunity is presented to you, you assess it and you think, I would do that, it’s the right time or it’s not the right time. You have to be respectful to your existing employers and I always would be.

“Me going to Stoke was financially good for the IFA, they benefited out of that quite a bit. They were well compensated, which isn’t normal in international football.”

“I would still like to work abroad at some point,” he adds. “I have an interest in other roles in the game. I don’t necessarily know whether my next role would necessarily have to be as a manager. It could be a different kind of role. At Stoke, a mountain of work had to be done off the pitch as well as on it.

“I think everyone likes to see a football club run well and efficiently and that’s a challenge for owners. I do think at a lot of football clubs there is a lack of football knowledge in the boardroom, I genuinely do. I never see the game as a fan, I am in it. There are a lot of people in football who see the game as a fan.

“I think sometimes people who put their money into a football club need protection from themselves! And I mean that with the best intentions. The hardest thing in football is to have patience because supporters don’t have patience. The reality of the situation is that churn never works. Don’t lose good people out of your organisation.”

Such words ought to make the ears of owners such as Aberdeen’s Dave Cormack prick up. As it stands, the Irish FA have the good fortune to feel the benefit of O’Neill’s wisdom for a second time. Circumstances differ significantly to his storied first chapter, when he led the country to the last 16 at Euro 2016. The trickiest part was persuading players to continue playing.

“The amount of conversations I had with lads in that group who wanted to retire!” he recalls. “Even Aaron (Hughes), I took him out of retirement – and he played for another seven years! This is different. A different group, a much younger group of players.”

"It is exciting," he adds. “We knew we had good younger players but we didn’t think we would have to play them as much as we have played them. Take Shea Charles, for example. When we played last March he was a 19-year-old in Manchester City’s under-21s. He had not played a minute of first team football. By the end of the campaign he had moved for £10 million to Southampton – and that will rise.”

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After Josh Magennis, George Saville and Paddy McNair, the rest of the current squad is under 24 years of age, which contrasts sharply with the core of the group that O’Neill melded into a team capable of doing something Scotland, who kick-off Euro 2024 against Germany, so desperately wish to emulate this summer, which is quality for the second stage of a major finals.

Any advice for Clarke, with whom he shares a good mate in former Chelsea, Hibs and Falkirk winger Kevin ‘Crunchie’ McAllister?

“When I look back on the Euros I probably didn’t realise at the time the significance of the first game,” says O’Neill. “We were very nervous at the first game (v Poland). Steve will have a group of players who have already played in the tournament, albeit in a diluted version.

“The problem is if you lose the first game, you can’t lose the second game or you are in a very difficult position. You can get through with three points, as we did, but you probably need four. Our problem was we lost the first game, we then won the second game v Ukraine but then we had to play Germany in the last game, who were world champions. We thought we needed a point but we only lost 1-0, (goalkeeper) Michael McGovern had the game of his life. I was watching him play for Livingston a few days ago (at 39-years-old)– it is mad!”

O'Neill can share such thoughts with Clarke this week when he returns to Hampden, the scene of, well, now you mention it, not too many memorable moments for him personally.

He was 14th man when Dundee United were beaten 4-3 by Motherwell in the epic 1991 Scottish Cup final and lost 1-0 the last time Northern Ireland played at the stadium in 2015, with Christophe Berra scoring the winner.

"Left out by Jim McLean... I don't have too many good memories," he says. "Probably the only good ones are with Brechin against Queen’s Park!"



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