Michael O’Neill: Northern Ireland Mastermind

The last three weeks we’ve looked at players who started their careers in the Irish League and went on to play cross-channel football for England and represented Northern Ireland at Euro 2016. Today we take a look at the career of the man who masterminded qualification to Euro 2016, the current national team manager Michael O’Neill.

Michael O’Neill was born in Portadown but moved to Ballymena where he attended St Louis Grammar School and won the Northern Ireland Schools FA Cup. Like last week’s player Niall McGinn, O’Neill was a promising GAA player representing Antrim GAA Minors but he gave the sport up to focus on football, playing for Ballymena side Star United for four years, before moving onto Chimney Corner and then eventually to Coleraine. O’Neill made his senior debut for the Bannsiders when he was just 15 years old and went on to make 18 appearances for the side scoring 4 goals. During his time with Coleraine he played against Dundee United in the UEFA Cup, United won comfortably but O’Neill impressed the Scottish sides manager Jim McLean enough that he attempted to sign him but the deal never came off and O’Neill ended up signing for Newcastle in October 1987 for a £100,000 fee.

At this time Newcastle were managed by another Northern Irishman and former Coleraine player, William ‘Iam’ McFaul, and had Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne in their ranks. O’Neill quickly broke into the Newcastle first team and became a hit in his first season, finishing joint top scorer with 13 goals in 22 appearances as the side finished 9th in the First Division. Unfortunately, O’Neill’s second season was less successful as he struggled with injuries and form as Newcastle were relegated, at the end of that season Dundee United and Jim McLean came calling again and this time there were no issues as O’Neill moved north of the border for £350,000.

O’Neill spent the next four seasons at Dundee United making a total of 64 appearances in the league as United finished in 4th place every season that O’Neill was at the club, he also helped out with 11 league goals along the way, unfortunately O’Neill’s time at the club was marred by a strained relationship with Jim McLean that seen O’Neill dropped from the first team for a period of time during his season at the club but he returned the following year to help the team qualify for Europe before signing for fellow Scottish side Hibernian.

O’Neill’s three years at Hibs perhaps produced the best period of his playing career as he made a total of 112 appearances for the club, scoring a few goals along the way. In his first season with the Edinburgh side he helped the, reach the League Cup final, where they unfortunately were beaten 2-1 by Rangers. In his second season at the club they fared well in the Scottish Cup making it to the semi-final stage before crashing out against Celtic but they did get the better of the Glasgow side in the league, as they finished two points ahead of them in 3rd place. O’Neill also won over half of his 31 international caps while with Hibernian and this period also included an international period against Austria were he scored two of his four international goals.

At the end of his contract O’Neill decided to move on and was close to joining Strum Graz in Austria but changed his mind and instead moved back to England signing for Coventry but unfortunately in his two years at the club he struggled to break into the team and had loan spells with Aberdeen and Reading before signing for Wigan Athletic. In O’Neill’s first season with the Latics he helped them reach the Second Division (now League One) play-offs, where they were beaten by Manchester City in their two-legged semi-final. O’Neill did win some silverware with Wigan though as they beat Millwall in the final of the Football League Trophy, O’Neill started and played the full ninety minutes as Paul Rogers scored the game’s only goal in injury time. The following season Wigan took a step closer to promotion as they reached the play-offs once more but this time lost to Gillingham in the final.

After leaving Wigan at the end of the 1999-2000 seasons O’Neill had spells with St. Johnstone, Portland Timbers, Clydebank and Ayr. O’Neill also returned home to Northern Ireland and had a further two year stint in the Irish League for East Belfast side Glentoran. O’Neill helped the Glens to a treble of trophies in his first season at the club as they won the league, League Cup and County Antrim Shield.

In 2004 O’Neill decided to hang up his playing boots and moved back to Scotland were he took a break from football for a year and focused on a career in financial services, eventually he took a part time assistant manager job with Scottish Third Division side Cowdenbeath, who were managed at the time by O’Neill’s former Dundee United teammate Mixu Paatelainen. O’Neill spent most of the 2006-06 season with the side as they won the Third Division title, before moving onto take up the manager’s position at First Division side Brechin City in April 2006 as they were relegated to the Second Division. O’Neill spent two a half seasons with the Scottish side finishing 4th and 5th respectively and was at one point linked with the vacant Dundee job, before opting to move on in December 2008 taking the manager’s position with Dublin side Shamrock Rovers.

O’Neill’s first season in Dublin seen an immediate improvement for Rovers as the finished in 2nd place, compared to 8th the season before, just four points behind champions Bohemians and qualified for the Europa League. If Rovers fans thought that was good O’Neill’s second season was even better as he led Rovers to their first league title in 16 years, just about pipping Bohemians to the title thanks to a better goal difference. The 2011 season proved to be O’Neill’s final season with the club and he continued his success with the side as they defended their league title but also added the Setanta Cup to the trophy cabinet and O’Neill also became the first manager of a League of Ireland side to lead his team to the group stages of a European competition as they made it to the Europa League group stage, where their opponents included Tottenham Hotspurs.

When Nigel Worthington opted to stand down as Northern Ireland manager following an underwhelming Euro 2012 Qualifying campaign, O’Neill’s name was quickly bandied about as one of the favourites for the job and, despite at one point appearing to rule himself out of the job, beat off his former international teammates Jim Magilton and Iain Dowie to land the job. O’Neill’s first campaign was disappointing as Northern Ireland finished second bottom with only one win to their name, there were moments such as the 1-1 draw away to Portugal and the win against Russia but there were some raised eyebrows when O’Neill was given a new contract to lead the team into the Euro 2016 qualifiers. This time around however O’Neill and his players surprised everyone as they finished top of their qualifying group to make it to their first international tournament in thirty years. Upon making it to the tournament O’Neill and his men once again showed everyone that they weren’t just there to make up the numbers as they made it through the group stage before losing to Wales in the first knockout round.

Before Euro 2016 O’Neill signed a new four year contract with the Irish FA and has since went on to lead Northern Ireland to 2nd place in the World Cup 2018 Qualifying group, losing only two matches against Germany, and at the time of writing is preparing his side for a crucial World Cup qualifying play-off against Switzerland. As has to be expected there has often been much speculation about O’Neill taking up a club job but Northern Ireland fans breathed a sigh of relief when O’Neill said in an interview last month that he was currently wary of taking a club job due to the instability they offer. In the meantime, Northern Ireland fans can continue to enjoy the ride and here’s hoping the next stop is Russia 2018.