Walking Back to Happiness: The placement of Michael O’Neill

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s recent supersonic adventures have been accompanied by a permanent journalistic aftershock after every game they play for some time now. Across the water, it is fairly gentle and usually seen when post-match pundits are forced to bluff a bit of knowledge about NI. Then they may express some polite, mild surprise, usually on host encouragement that the manager is not working with a ‘top club’. Valhalla FC is waiting for you, Michael.

Over here in Greater Cumbria amongst some of the football media it is almost a chronic case of ‘Please notice him’. It is a ‘Munch’-like buried scream from within and isn’t so much written for the readers as releasing a wailing piece of angst. This has been going on for a year or so now to the extent that Michael O’Neill will next be managing at Hillsborough due to the fact he gave an interview on a Wednesday or more topically might have been the next Crystal Palace manager since he collected his MBE at the Buckingham version a while back. Glad you are sorted, Roy.

This is more than wanting to be the first to break the news. Apart from the ‘notice us and our manager’, it suggests a want. A want to be part of the Premier League tide ride. A want to have the ‘hyp(e)notic’ gold dust fall about our little selves. The two things that annoy many about the local media are that they’re keeping the sectarian flames fanned and also their wide-eyed wonder at celebrity. If George Clooney drank a pint of Guinness or, God forbid, was discovered to have some long lost relative over here the pulp in front of you would self-ignite with excitement. Those things are well-ingrained but I have yet to see a balanced discussion as to why Michael O’Neill hasn’t been ‘snapped up’ by that big club.

First of all, factors significant from this side of the water. It was Michael O’Neill who pushed for a four-year contract, not the IFA. They generally don’t do that. O’ Neill isn’t the sort of character to ask for that without a good reason for doing so. He is highly involved in all levels of the game here and of course, he is in the middle of a major mission with the senior team. The main narrative has been will he be around to take us to Russia should we qualify, but seriously….. of course, he will. After Russia would be a more natural time to leave should he decide to push for higher things. I feel though that a lot will depend on who is left standing on the playing front with likely retirements of McAuley, Brunt, Hughes and possibly Davis and Ward. Davis though I think is good for another campaign and may well decide to go for the 119 Jennings cap record. You hear O’Neill talk a lot about what talent is coming through and like anyone else he may well want to leave at the top.

What else? Lawrie Sanchez was Northern Ireland’s managerial George Best in a way. Dazzled by managing in the Premiership he got too close to the fire and was burned. A more than likely appearance at the Euro 2008 finals would have been a shining light on his CV but he jumped ship too soon. His story still casts a shadow and he splits opinion. But the greater point is would O’Neill want to upset the fiefdom he has where he can do no wrong and is well rewarded for it in respect and finance. He has school-age children and having moved around clubs a lot as a player, knows the destabilisation the vagaries of club management might cause. A decent club job will always come up in modern football.

However, the biggest reason to my mind as to his still being with us is simple loyalty. As many know he had a pretty rough first few years. The NI job was his biggest yet and I know he wasn’t sure if he was going to be kept on after that first campaign. Even though Jim Shaw has moved on as President I believe he wants to reward that faith shown in him by the Association, and that is a big thing for him with all this walk away chat.

On the other side of the water a few points for me that should be put on the line. Aside from Scottish clubs and one or two Championship sides who have considered him, general English interest has been near to non-existent. Premiership chairmen have one eye on the global TV and sponsorship market when they appoint a manager and the other on the team. Since we are in this conversation ‘parish’ I give you Frank de Boer as an example. International football does not come into the thinking of Premier League chairmen as much as we think, and certainly not Northern Ireland who many would consider little more than lucky upstarts. An announcement of a little-known Northern Irishman is not likely to excite the customers of the big, global brands that these clubs now are – capable though he may well be as at the end of the day, is football management not about getting the best out of what you have?

By and large, Ulster folk are not attention seeking big cheeses. You can see a certain similarity to the heads down, no-nonsense sober professionalism of the current Ulster Premiership players. You can imagine their shirts wouldn’t sell out in the various club shops. Down to earth isn’t camera friendly as Paul Scholes would no doubt concur so this ‘type’ rarely get promoted by the London media powerhouses. For a loose sort of example – who got more media space – Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe? Anyway, a certain G.Best did enough camera time to last us all fifty years.

I suspect these points will not sell newspapers and that is fair enough, but let us stop wondering open-mouthed and glass-eyed why on earth the Northern Ireland football team still have Michael O’Neill as their manager.