- Lifestyle & Sports
- 09 Nov 17
As the Other Boys In Green get ready to take on Switzerland at Windsor Park, we recall Stuart Clark's meeting with our 2015 Manager of the Year...
It was a massive 2015 for MICHAEL O'NEILL whose un-fancied Northern Ireland produced some stunning performances to top their Euro 2016 qualifying group.
"Are you sure it's Michael O'Neill you want to talk to?" laughed the Irish Football Association PRO when we rang up to request an interview with the man in charge of the Other Boys In Green. While the Martin variety of O'Neill also merits copious praise for securing the Republic a Euro 2016 berth, it was Michael qualifying as Group F winners with Northern Ireland, which ranks as the managerial feat of the year.
It had all gotten off to a pretty rotten start with the North suffering 0-3 and 0-6 reversals to Norway and Holland in his first 2011 friendly matches in charge. Did he think, "Fuck, I've bitten off more than I can chew here?"
"We weren't at full strength for either game, which for financial reasons were both played away from home, so, no, I didn't panic," O'Neill insists. "Far more important for me were the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers. We finished a disappointing fifth in the group, but drawing 1-1 in Portugal and beating Russia 1-0 at Windsor Park showed what the team was capable of. There were several games when with 80, 85 minutes gone we were still in it, but ended up conceding. We finished with seven points, but were arguably worth 15 or 16. That mental block of, however well we'd played, not getting a result was removed when we came from behind to beat Hungary in our opening Euro qualifier.
"We then beat the Faroe Islands at home and Greece away to go top of the group, so it was a dream start that got everyone believing that, 'Yeah, we can do it!'"
His 88th minute winner in Budapest was the first of Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty's seven Euro 2016 qualifying goals, two more than the likes of Robbie Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Eden Hazard could muster. Impressive form from a man who Palermo let go after just one season because, as chairman Maurizo Zamparini put it, "He is a womaniser - he disappears for a week, takes a plane to go hunt for women in Milan. His behaviour is unmanageable. Kyle's an Irishman without rules."
"He's had a lot of bad press, some of which to be honest he's brought on himself, but Kyle's a great lad," O'Neill resumes. "He's a fantastic athlete who's quick, powerful and technically good. What he's done this campaign is consistently bring those things together. His performances in the World Cup qualifiers were good, but due to a lack of confidence, perhaps, he missed some chances and didn't score. Through a mixture of injury and suspension, he only played in four of the games, which when you've only got a handful of Premier League players in the squad was a big blow. Kyle's a likeable character and easy to deal with, so I can't speak too highly of him."
Far from making up the numbers next summer in France, O'Neill is confident they can reach the knockout stages.
"We're currently 30th in the FIFA rankings and go there as group winners, which is an amazing achievement with these players," he notes. "Our squad comes from the four leagues in England and the top two divisions in Scotland. I'm always hearing about the Republic of Ireland and Wales being forced to pick Championship players; I'd love to be able to pick a side full of Championship players! The Republic have 55 in the Championship whereas we have less than 40 in the whole of the UK to choose from. Our best results have come against the bigger teams, so there won't be any fear factor."
Asked whether he's spoken to Martin O'Neill since the Republic's smiting of Bosnia, Michael says, "We've exchanged texts and I'll maybe give him a wee buzz this week. Martin was in contact before the play-offs to ask whether I'd talk to him about Hungary if they were drawn against them, and of course I said, 'Yes'. I'm sure we'll compare notes with regards to things like base camps. I've already discussed the best way to prepare with Chris Coleman who's managing in a tournament for the first time too."
The enthusiasm with which Norn Iron qualifying for the Euros was greeted in the Republic is probably down to the heroics Michael performed whilst Shamrock Rovers manager from 2009-Õ11. Back to back titles, a Setanta Cup win and a history-making Europa League campaign guarantee him a place in the pantheon of Hoops legends. The latter was achieved by beating the mighty Partisan Belgrade on home turf.
"Partisan the year before had been in the Champions League, so they were a good side and firm favourites to progress, but on the back of a 1-1 in Tallaght we went there and got one of the best - if not the best - Irish club results ever. It was a very intimidating place to go, and bloody hot; we could have been forgiven for fading in extra-time but instead went up a gear. It was an absolute honour to be the Rovers manager that night and then play massive clubs like Spurs, PAOK and Rubin Kazan."
Martin O'Neill has been criticised for not including in-form League of Ireland lads like Richie Towell, who's on his way from Dundalk to Brighton, in his squad. With so few UK-based players to pick from, has Michael ever been tempted to call up some of the lads from the Danske Bank Premiership?
"Without doubt there's quality in both leagues, but realistically to be playing international football you have to be at an English or Scottish club. It's a question of what level you pitch them in at. I actually think the SPL's better for some lads because it's not as tough physically as maybe the Championship is."
The Irish leagues have also become a fertile breeding ground and springboard for managers. "Yeah, you've got the guy sacked by Peterborough, Dave Robertson, taking over at Sligo Rovers and David Healy going into management for the first time with Linfield," O'Neill reflects. "He'd been doing a bit of coaching within our own Northern Ireland youth structure when the position came up. It's a big ask for him, but he has a genuine affinity for the club and a big enough personality to command the dressing-room."
As a member of Roy Hodgson's Barmy Army, I'm still smarting from being at Windsor Park the night David Healy put England to the sword.
"It was a great night that, but for me the performance against Spain when David scored a hat-trick was up there with George Best against Scotland. That Spain team went on to dominate world football for the next eight years, so to beat them in Belfast was phenomenal. Another very special performance was Stephen Davis against Greece in the Windsor Park game that guaranteed us qualification. He'll be a big, big player for us next summer."
Has he adopted the fabled Jack Charlton tactic of paying for everything by cheque, which instead of cashing the recipient sticks in a frame because it's got his autograph on it?
"I haven't gone as far as that yet," Michael laughs, "but it's something I'll bear in mind, so!"
O'Neill had a distinguished playing career himself, with spells at Newcastle, Dundee United, Coventry, Wigan and Hibs and 31 run-outs in a Northern Ireland shirt. What were his international highlights?
"People always go back to the game against Austria when we won 5-3 and I scored twice and hit the post as well," Michael reminisces fondly. "That actually secured a play-off place for the Republic of Ireland. I played in five of those six games we played against the Republic, which will always live long in the memory. I also had the good fortune to play right through from schoolboy level with people like Jim Magilton who's now the Performance Director at the IFA, Michael Hughes who I went to school with, Neil Lennon and Gerry Taggart. Football's been good to me."
Football might very well say the same about Michael O'Neill.