Michael O’Neill’s Shamrock Rovers living the dream
Managers, fans and pundits are falling over themselves to give Michael O’Neill a standing ovation and no wonder.
As his Shamrock Rovers side prepare to host Russian outfit Rubin Kazin tonight (6pm) in the group stages of the Europa League — yes, that’s correct, an Irish side has made it this far on the European stage — the former Northern Ireland international is being showered with praise.
The Ballymena man has masterminded a stunning European run, a fitting reward for dreaming big dreams and believing in himself.
Now everyone believes the 42-year-old has the magic formula for managerial success and several members of the Green and White Army are desperate for the man who won 33 caps for his country to one day lead Northern Ireland back to the promised land of a major tournament.
O’Neill’s former international team-mate and comrade at Newcastle United, Tommy Wright, feels his close friend has the tactical nous and expertise to transform Northern Ireland fortunes but that is perhaps a challenge for another day.
The former Hibernian and Dundee United midfielder has more pressing concerns, namely a tough date with the Russians at Tallaght Stadium with further Europa League battles against PAOK Salonika and Tottenham to come.
Jim Magilton is assisting his former international colleague O’Neill at Rovers and although it’s likely to be a short-term arrangement, it promises to be a roller-coaster ride for the Ulster duo.
Lisburn Distillery manager Wright, who worked with O'Neill as his goalkeeping coach throughout his first season in charge of Rovers in 2009, is not surprised his pal’s star just keeps rising.
“Michael was at Newcastle six months before me and since 1988 we have remained very close friends,” said the former Northern Ireland stopper.
“I was very fortunate to get the chance to work with him at Rovers and he has been doing a remarkable job. Michael has a wonderful football brain and a lot of credit must also go to the club’s board as they are now setting an example to all other clubs.
“He’s had to work under a restricted budget like all of us but he has done exceptionally well and the experience that Jim (Magilton) is bringing will also help.
“Working with full-time players will have been very beneficial to Michael and although it’s sometimes difficult to tell if a player goes on to become a good manager, people like myself, Steve Lomas, Jim Magilton and Iain Dowie were always having healthy debates about the game and Michael has shown a desire to stay involved.
“He has proved himself in Europe and should Northern Ireland need a manager in the future then why not?
“He is tactically very thorough, his detailed knowledge of the opposition is superb and he’s triumphed when teams have been underdogs, just as Northern Ireland needs to do.”
O’Neill’s number two, Magilton said: “I've come in with Michael in a consultancy role to basically help out a friend who is in need.
“If you've a friend who needs help then if it is humanly possible you should be there to give it to them. I'm not Michael's assistant, but I'm there to help in any way he needs me. We pick each other's brains about things and bounce ideas off each other.
“My experience at a senior management has allowed Michael to do more hands-on coaching, which he enjoys and it's paid dividends in terms of the club reaching the Europa League group stage.
“I've enjoyed it and the European experience has been a real highlight. It's also made me hungry to get out on my own again.” Reflecting on the speculation regarding the future of under-fire Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington, Magilton added: “I can't do anything about that speculation. Any manager with a Northern Ireland connection will be linked — myself, Michael O'Neill, Martin O'Neill, Iain Dowie.
“Even Brendan Rodgers and Kenny Shiels who never played international football will be the subject of speculation, but at present there is no vacancy.”
Wright concedes that while O’Neill is an “ambitious manager” and he would find it difficult to reject his country’s call in the future, his total focus will be on performing more European heroics with Rovers.
O’Neill said: “We have to be realistic about this. It would be an enormous achievement for a club like us to progress out of the group stage.
“I would imagine that from a financial viewpoint, we are possibly the club with the smallest budget that has ever competed in the group stage of a European competition.
“Money, unfortunately, is a big factor in football, particularly in European football with player acquisition and everything that goes along with that.
“What we have proved to date is that with good organisation, good application from the players and good players, it is possible for us to get to the stage we are at now. People have to recognise the achievements of the players for what they have done so far without burdening them with other expectation.”
Back from the dead: Dubs enjoying new lease of life
When Eoghan Rice, Shamrock Rovers fan, member of supporters' group the ‘400 Club’ and former journalist, wrote ‘We Are Rovers’, his insightful history of Irish football's most successful club, his intentions were clear.
“I looked at the book as something of an obituary,” says Rice. “At that time when I was sitting down to write the final chapter in mid-2005, I didn't know if the club would still be in existence when the book came out.”
It is a point worth remembering as Rovers prepare to welcome Rubin Kazan to Dublin — or more accurately the working-class, south-city suburb of Tallaght — in Europa League Group A this evening. The Russian side may have travelled more than 2,000 miles to play their opening fixture, but that's nothing compared to the arduous and complicated path their Irish opponents have traversed to claim their place amongst the continent's demi-elite.
At the time Rice was putting the finishing touches to his book a little over six years ago, the club were in examinership, a process in Irish law where a company is poked and prodded by a court-appointed official to see if there is any way it can be kept in business.
Rovers' problems had their roots in a decision made in 1987 by the club owners at the time, the Kilcoyne family.
They, inexplicably, decided to sell Rovers' home of 61 years, Glenmalure Park, to property developers, without coming up with any kind of plan to reinvest the proceeds in a new stadium.
And so began a 22-year period where homeless Rovers would become tenants at five different grounds across Dublin, bringing the club to the brink of closure.
The reason the club did not fall over the precipice in those transient days was entirely down to the incredible dedication of their support. They say a club is noth
ing without its fans, and the Rovers' story gives real substance to the adage: with no money, no ground, a variety of different owners and a huge turnover of players, the supporters were the only constant in the equation.
It was apt, then, that they would ultimately turn out to be the club's saviours.
In 2002, they formed the 400 Club — there were 400 members to start with — and the concept was simple: each member would pay a monthly subscription in order to help the board with the day-to-day costs of the club.
“We wanted to do everything we could to keep the club alive,” says Rice, “and we were willing to put hands deep in our pockets in order to do so.”
Their willingness to contribute financially to the cause certainly impressed the club's creditors, who had no qualms about the 400 Club taking ownership of Shamrock Rovers at the conclusion of the examinership process in July 2005.
But it is worth remembering that the survival of Shamrock Rovers, and the supporters' takeover, is just part of this footballing miracle; the other equally impressive aspect to the Rovers tale is how this club has managed to elbow their way into the group stages of the Europa League.
“I'd imagine we have one of the lowest budgets of any team to reach the group stages of a Uefa competition,” says Shamrock Rovers chairman, Jonathan Roche.
Rovers will bring 2,500 supporters to White Hart Lane in a fortnight, while tonight's game is set to be a sell-out. Not bad for a club whose obituary had already been written.