Malcolm Brodie: Michael O'Neill’s class shone through the rain
Former Northern Ireland midfielder Michael O'Neill has been a revelation since taking over Shamrock Rovers in December 2008, bringing a new dimension to the running of the club. He is definitely a class managerial act.
Tomorrow, however, he faces the most formidable test when his squad, trailing 2-0, face the mighty Italian machine Juventus at Modena, and not Turin as their stadium is being used by U2 preparing for their forthcoming tour.
The odds obviously are stacked high against him. His preparations have been thorough. That is the way he always worked as a player, now manager, or acting as a perceptive TV and radio analyst. His “do your homework” theory has brought rewards.
O'Neill played for no fewer than 14 clubs, including Newcastle United, Dundee United, Hiberninan, Wigan Athletic and Glentoran and was capped 33 times, scoring seven goals. He wore the green jersey with pride and, who knows, if he continues his managerial climb one day he may be a candidate to take charge of his country.
O'Neill always gave the impression internationally that we hadn't seen his full potential — certainly not on a par with many club performances.
Then on Wednesday, November 15, 1995, a foul night of howling wind and cascading rain, he really came of age when Northern Ireland defeated Austria 5-3 in a European Championship qualifier at Windsor Park.
Scintillating was the only way to describe it. “This was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished displays by any Irish player,” said manager Bryan Hamilton. “His skill, technique, passing, movement, understanding with his team-mates and his opportunism floored the Austrians.”
O'Neill scored two of the goals, hit the post and was unfortunate not to have snatched a hat-trick. That hadn't happened since George Best in the 5-0 humiliation of Cyprus at Windsor Park, 1975.
Best, a BBC TV analyst at the Austrian game, had to come down from the roof of the main stand when the rain dripped through the radio booth and caused electric shocks when it hit the microphones. Jackie Fullerton had to be evacuated too. “Raindrops keep falling on my mike,” someone chanted at ‘the singer’. That was one occasion my sparring partner Jackie didn't burst into song!
Northern Ireland had experienced a barren period in the series. You couldn't believe this was Our Team we were watching. Yes, Our Team scoring five goals! Impossible.
Unfortunately, the victory didn't ensure Euro Finals qualification for the damage had been done in the opening matches of Group Six.
But O'Neill had written his name in the history books on that dreadful weather-hit occasion.
European Championship Group Six (Windsor Park, November 15,1995): Northern Ireland 5 Austria 3
Northern Ireland: Fettis (Hull), Lomas (Manchester City), Worthington (Leeds United, capt), Hunter (Wrexham), Hill (Leicester), Lennon (Crewe), Gillespie (Newcastle United), O’Neill (Hibernian), Dowie (West Ham; Quinn, Reading 81), Gray (Sunderland; McDonald QPR 78), Hughes (West Ham).
Northern Ireland scorers: O’Neill (2), Dowie (pen), Hunter, Gray.