Belfast Telegraph

How this young red-haired, freckle-faced boy became the man to turn Northern Ireland’s fortunes around

By Graham Luney

The spotlight fell on Michael O’Neill yesterday but Northern Ireland’s new manager always had star quality.

The Portadown-born man is now living his dream and, while some have expressed surprise that a 42-year-old without a wealth of managerial experience should be handed such a prestigious post, O’Neill’s life has progressed from one fairytale to the next.

Michael’s talent as a footballer came to the surface when he moved to Ballymena, and at St Louis Grammar School he was already proving to be a class act.

His star was rising, and fast.

He played in a Northern Ireland schoolboy side alongside Jim Magilton — who also made the final shortlist of three for the top job along with Iain Dowie — but it was O’Neill who won over Irish Football Association chiefs.

The first Ulster-born Catholic to become Northern Ireland manager for more than 50 years, O’Neill wants his current crop of players to show the same desire and ambition that has been a feature of his football career — right from the beginning.

He’s also the first Northern Ireland-born manager to be based in the country for more than half-a-century.

At the age of 15 he made his first team debut for Coleraine and he even played in the Uefa Cup for the Bannsiders.

But he was destined to grace a bigger stage and Dundee United and Newcastle United chased his signature.

It was the Magpies, managed by Coleraine man Willie McFaul, who won the race for the attacking midfielder.

In 1987/88, his first season with United, he finished the club’s top goalscorer, making the international stage the next natural step-up.

And the fairytale continued. Michael made his Northern Ireland debut on February 17, 1988 at the age of 18 in a 3-2 defeat to Greece in Athens.

The 33rd and final cap arrived on October 5, 1996, in Northern Ireland's 1-1 draw with Armenia.

His distinguished playing career saw him enjoy adventures at several clubs including Dundee United, Hibernian and Wigan as well as the Portland Timbers in America and Irish league side Glentoran.

But this shrewd and intelligent operator was destined to be a manager.

In 2006 he became assistant boss to Mixu Paatelainen at Cowdenbeath, but he quickly took charge of Brechin City, taking them to the Second Division play-offs in 2007.

The following year he agreed to join Shamrock Rovers and his fairytale story continued with a Setanta Cup success and back-to-back League of Ireland titles.

But his greatest achievement to date is becoming the first manager to guide an Irish side into the Europa League group stage.

A 3-2 aggregate win over Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League play-offs was the stuff of dreams for the club and another extraordinary chapter in the life of O’Neill.

Jobs don’t come any tougher than the Northern Ireland one, with a daunting World Cup 2014 qualifying group consisting of Russia, Portugal, Israel, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan to tackle.

But if anyone can guide Northern Ireland to a first major finals since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, then it’s miracle worker O’Neill. As he prepares to officially become Nigel Worthington’s successor on February 1, O’Neill said: “It’s a big challenge but I’ll give it everything.

“Northern Ireland has a strong football tradition but one that needs to be refreshed with some more contemporary success.”

People are already wondering if the boy from Ballymena can take what is often seen as something of a poisoned chalice and make a sweeter brew.

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