One of Michael O’Neill’s final acts as the Northern Ireland manager emphasises why the lure of club football was always going to prove too strong eventually. O’Neill used to adopt self-deprecating humour when explaining how seeking out international players from the nether regions of the game had become normality. A trip to Blackpool v Peterborough in League One where the reason for attending, Jordan Thompson, went unused summed up a scenario whereby O’Neill had created national heroes from the unlikeliest of backdrops. There was time for the 50-year-old to attend Celtic’s League Cup demolition of Hibernian later the same day; none of the 36 players listed are eligible to play for Northern Ireland.
O’Neill’s achievements with the national side barely need explaining. In what mirrors the situation now, as the 50-year-old steps into Stoke City, eyebrows were raised when he swapped a highly successful tenure at Shamrock Rovers for his country. The assumption was that O’Neill could and should have instead claimed a club post in England. As the Northern Irish toiled – there was a friendly draw with Malta before competitive losses to Azerbaijan and Luxembourg – the manager’s leap into international football appeared outright folly.
By last year, O’Neill – a Catholic – was switching on Christmas lights in Belfast’s arch-protestant Shankill area (Mark Hateley, a Rangers hero of the past, will perform such duties this time). O’Neill had written himself into cross-community folklore through the power of football – the Northern Irish qualified for their first major finals in three decades in 2016 and came so close to repeating the feat two years later. Those who scoff at supposedly soft progression forget that Northern Ireland topped their Euro 2016 qualifying section. They equalled Switzerland for 180 minutes of a World Cup play-off as decided by an outrageous penalty award.
Stoke’s attraction to O’Neill is obvious. He maximises resources by creating an environment players relish. The Northern Ireland squad remained firmly behind their manager even when early results were bad. Call-offs remained at a premium, as did retirements. Part of this was material – O’Neill insisted and got the very best of facilities for his squad, whereby they sensed and rose to the value of international football. Earlier, Northern Ireland had been run as a jolly whereby success felt both unlikely and irrelevant.
Attention to detail for squad gatherings became wonderfully intense, whereby every aspect of opposition was bestowed on players and in various forms. O’Neill didn’t care about outsiders learning his selection – in order to give maximum preparation time, he would lay out plans at the earliest opportunity. Andy Cousins, a publicity-shy but outstanding Irish scout who performed dual roles for Manchester City and Northern Ireland, sourced potential call-ups and opposition detail where others couldn’t.
It wasn’t all coffee and cuddles. After Kyle Lafferty was sent off shortly after coming on as a substitute during a key tie with Portugal in 2013, the manager shamed the striker in front of his teammates, asking why they tolerated his unreliable ways. Lafferty heeded the message sufficiently to score seven times in the heralded 2016 campaign. When the same player delivered a late call-off for Nations League matches last year, O’Neill broke with convention by applying a Fifa rule which prevented him playing in his club’s next fixture. O’Neill is engaging and funny, but crossing him isn’t a wise move.
Through being based in Edinburgh, O’Neill has been such a regular at domestic matches in England that the rigours of the Championship won’t surprise him. O’Neill has an understanding of structures within football – he has been taking part in a Uefa sporting director’s course – that match his tactical versatility. His contacts book and access to coaching insight is enviable.
Although the commercial terms of his contract render this a safe bet in so many ways, he is due immense credit from stepping outside of his comfort zone and back towards day-to-day coaching. Others tried and failed to prise O’Neill away from the Irish Football Association – precisely what makes Stoke different will be fascinating to learn. Perhaps, quite legitimately, O’Neill feels he can restore identity to a club which has drifted but such dreamy ideology contrasts with his natural pragmatism. As if to prove everyone wins here, the IFA won’t at all mind receipt of a hefty compensation payment for a manager they backed and watched flourish as an international setup was totally rejuvenated.
That O’Neill can remain in charge of Northern Ireland for the upcoming matches against the Netherlands and Germany – and possibly more – owes everything to the esteem this manager is held in. On a purely football level, there should be sadness that this endearing alliance is coming to an end. O’Neill batted hard for his country, including when it came to retaining young players the Republic of Ireland might seek to prise away – a matter he felt strongly about.
Such battles will soon be a distant memory. Should O’Neill repeat international heroics on a domestic platform, as is clearly the plan, Stoke’s trajectory will be worthy of close attention.
The Guardian Sport