Belfast Telegraph

Football's great O'Neills are honoured by UU

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill and Republic of Ireland counterpart Martin O'Neill were delighted to receive honorary degrees from Ulster University yesterday for their outstanding contribution to sport.

The O'Neills have enjoyed many wonderful moments throughout their careers, not least guiding Northern Ireland and the Republic to the Euro 2016 finals. They both openly admitted this particular recognition was special for them.

Addressing their fellow graduates at Ulster University's Coleraine campus, the O'Neills were in humorous and inspirational mood, with Michael speaking about the pride his mum would feel - even if shining as a football manager may not have been her first choice of vocation for her son.

"Unfortunately, my mother can't be here because of her health, but it would have been a very proud day for her. She always would have liked a priest in the family. Now she has a doctor!" said O'Neill to laughter inside the diamond auditorium.

"It is a proud day for me, my wife Bronagh and my daughters Erin and Olivia who are with me here today."

Referring to the Irish Football Association slogan 'Dare to Dream', O'Neill, who won 31 caps as a player, advised the students going out into the world of employment to do the same.

"During my 18-year playing career, which I can only describe as a mixture of highs and lows, I returned to my studies initially with the Open University to study maths and statistics," he said.

"I embarked on a career in financial services in Edinburgh with Ernst and Young, with football management the furtherest thing from my mind. But I had an itch to scratch when I started as a part-time manager with Brechin City, a tiny club in Scotland.

"I did not envisage 10 years later I would be leading my country into a major European finals.

"The experience of last summer in France was something I shall never forget.

"Northern Ireland showed what a great country we are. A tiny nation punching above our weight and making friends everywhere we went.

"We had a slogan 'Dare to Dream', and that is something you should aspire to do as well. I'm not sure I have any real wisdom for you other than to say work hard, follow your heart, take chances, take risks and do not be afraid to fail."

Martin O'Neill thanked his wife Geraldine and spoke eloquently about what it takes to be a successful manager. He was a pretty good player, too, winning the European Cup with Nottingham Forest and captaining Northern Ireland to a famous 1982 World Cup finals win over hosts Spain.

To a hushed audience, Martin said: "What I knew from the outset was that a professional footballer's career was actually quite short. After 12 or 13 years playing in the top flight I had to seek a new challenge. I became a football manager.

"This meant a shift in perspective and responsibility. Rather than provide the youth and vitality, I now had to engage it and enhance it. I had to instil into my players an unyielding team spirit to surmount challenges. I know from experience players need to belong. There is no greater feeling.

"To get talented individuals to work tirelessly for a team goal is an important feature in management. Some may even say it is the key to success."

He had started his speech by saying: "This is an opportunity for me to thank my wife Geraldine. She is not used to public praise."

He added with a smile: "She is not used to private praise either."

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