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Michael O'Neill: 'Hopefully Northern Ireland is a team the whole community can have pride in'

Published 31/08/2015

On the ball: Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is in a positive frame of mind over his team’s chances of qualifying for the upcoming European Championships
On the ball: Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is in a positive frame of mind over his team’s chances of qualifying for the upcoming European Championships

Adrian Rutherford talks to the Northern Ireland football manager about his hopes for the future and what it means to play for your country.

Q. Had you always wanted to be a footballer?

A. Yes. I did play Gaelic football as well when I was younger, but my priority was always football.

I had gone to clubs in England when I was younger. I would go over to different clubs during the summer.

Right the way through I was playing for my school and my boys' club team.

I always stuck at it at school as well. I didn't go across the water as an apprentice at the time, I stayed and studied for my A-levels.

It was actually in my upper sixth year that I was transferred to Newcastle United.

Q. How did that come about?

A. I was transferred there from Coleraine. I had played for them in the Irish League when I was still at school.

Coleraine had been drawn against Dundee United in the Uefa Cup, which is now the Europa League, and shortly after that game I was transferred and moved across.

Q. It must have been a big culture shock?

A. Yeah, it was. I was at school in Ballymena studying for three A-levels and filling out a form about what I was going to do and all that kind of stuff.

Then the opportunity presented itself for me to go to Newcastle. I had to make that decision.

I put the studies on hold and went across.

Willie McFaul was manager at the time. Paul Gascoigne was there as well. It was quite a baptism of fire to go into the dressing room.

I was living in digs in a big city and I basically went straight into the first team. I went from leaving school on a Tuesday to five days later sitting on the team bench.

There wasn't much of a settling-in period. Willie had enough confidence in me to throw me in and it was probably the best thing for me.

Q. You played in Scotland. What do you make of Scottish football now, given the loss of Rangers and Celtic's Champions League exit?

A. When I went to Scotland it wasn't seen as a backward step.

English football at that time wasn't in a particularly good place. Clubs were banned from Europe, for example.

There was no real European football for English sides.

I went to Dundee United, who had just been beaten in the Uefa Cup final, and who had tried to sign me from Coleraine. I went into a really strong team.

Scottish football was a lot stronger then than it is now.

I think now the finances and being so close to the Premier League is not helping.

The league is in a better shape than people give it credit for because there are a lot of young Scottish players, and that will be good for the Scottish national team down the line.

But it's hard for them now to compete at European level and in the Champions League.

Q. You played Major League Soccer for Portland Timbers in the United States. Tell me about that.

A.I played for a season there. It was fantastic. It was something I had always wanted to do.

My brother had gone to university in America at 18. He was a runner and had gone there on a track scholarship.

So I'd been to America quite a bit because he was there, and it was always my plan to play out there and possibly finish my career out there.

Ultimately I only played for one season. It was a very different experience.

Having played throughout the UK my whole career, it was a nice experience because it was a less pressurised environment.

The atmosphere at the games was totally different. It was a lot more fun.

People went to the games to enjoy themselves.

There wasn't the same level of abuse hurled at you.

We travelled throughout the States and played in some bizarre places and bizarre stadiums.

I really liked Portland, I met some great people and it was a really nice way of life there.

Q. You played 31 times for Northern Ireland. Is there any game which stands out?

A. Everyone always talks about the Austria game (a 5-3 win for Northern Ireland in November 1995).

It was at Windsor Park and I scored twice and hit the post.

But really I look back on all the games. My biggest disappointment was that I didn't get 50 caps, and I probably should have done.

However, other players come along and your opportunities become somewhat limited.

The big thing for me when you look back is the experience of being in the squad and your memories from being part of the squad and the people that you travel with.

The games were great as well. The European Championship of 1996 was probably the closest we came to qualification.

Q. You were a Catholic playing for Northern Ireland during what was a very different time. Did you ever experience any aggravation?

A. No. The Northern Ireland fans were always good with me. I never had anything around that.

Now we have a situation where people feel Catholics are more inclined to want to play for the Republic, but I certainly never thought like that.

I always wanted to play for Northern Ireland, and my experiences were all very, very positive.

Q. You took Shamrock Rovers into the group stages of the Europa League - an unheard-of feat for a League of Ireland club. Tell me about that.

A. That was a big experience. We always did well in Europe.

I think the Shamrock Rovers job, particularly being involved in Europe, was good preparation for this job.

You were always going in against a lot of teams who were better than you, but we always managed to pull out some big results.

It was a great experience for the players. A lot of them had failed to have a career in England and had come back to Ireland.

We had a very successful three years where we won two league titles and a Setanta Cup, and got to cup finals, plus the European experience against some massive teams.

Q. You are now Northern Ireland manager. What does it mean to manage your country?

A. Wherever my career takes me going forward, I will probably never have a job which I take as personally as this.

It's a very personal job to be manager of your country because you want success, not just for yourself and the team, but you feel a responsibility to deliver success for everyone else - the whole population.

I see what good results for Northern Ireland do, in terms of the positive outlook it gives and how people respond to those results.

This campaign has been particularly pleasing because we've given that hope back to people that we can compete and we can qualify.

That is what I wanted when I took the job. I didn't just want to play games. We had to work towards making ourselves into a competitive team again.

We've done that and have an opportunity to qualify for Euro 2016, and I'm fully aware of what that would mean to the people of Northern Ireland.

Q. You started with a 3-0 loss to Norway and a 6-0 loss to Holland. Did you ever think this is an impossible job?

A. There were times when I did feel that.

When I took the job I was 42. I think I was the third youngest in Europe in charge of a national team.

There were times when I thought maybe it wasn't the right decision to take it at this stage of my career.

But I've done everything possible to improve things and we are in the middle of a strong campaign.

When I took the job it wasn't the strongest group of players we had ever had. Some players were starting to come to the end of their careers - David Healy, Grant McCann and so on.

Some other players were contemplating retirement. I talked Aaron Hughes out of it.

That was the first task - to keep everyone on board, and bit by bit we've built it into a good team. But we are still very low on resources. We don't have enough players competing at the highest levels.

Q. We've won four out of six games in our qualification group. Why is that?

A. I think it's down to momentum. The key is to get points on the board early and then the job is a lot easier in terms of players being available and so on.

We didn't manage to do that in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

We weren't strong enough either. We drew three of the first four games, and should have won at least two of those. We also nearly won in Portugal.

We just didn't get any momentum and ended up with injuries and suspensions.

Too many players played in that campaign, whereas this time we've had a much smaller band of players, and you get consistency.

The big thing is the availability of players. We've not had to change the team too much, and that's a big, big factor.

Q. We've two really big games coming up, starting with the Faroe Islands. What are your thoughts on that?

A. The Faroe Islands will be a very tough game. They have given everyone in the group a tough game.

It is a different experience out there. The only thing in our favour is that we've a number of players who have played there before.

The Faroes are stronger than they have ever been. They have won two games in the group, their football is at an all-time high in terms of interest, so we will approach it like we would if it was Romania or Hungary away.

Q. And then possibly back to Windsor Park next Monday for a chance to seal qualification against Hungary?

A. To be honest I'm trying not to think about that. At this stage it is ifs, buts and maybes.

But it would be lovely to be in a situation where we are playing for qualification at home, and we have to aim to put ourselves in that situation.

Q. Would it be a failure now if we didn't qualify?

A. I don't think it would be a failure.

Qualification would be a major success for this group of players and it would be a major reward for players such as Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Steven Davis and so on - players who have played in a lot of campaigns and not been in this position before.

I wouldn't see it as a failure, I'd see it as a disappointment.

Failure is when you have a really strong group of players and you fail to qualify.

Q. How big an achievement would it be to qualify?

A. It would be an amazing achievement to qualify, especially when you look at the level some of our players are playing at.

We have four players playing in the Premier League at the minute. Two played in the Championship last weekend.

A lot of our squad play their club football at a low level.

We were in pot five [fifth ranked seeds] for the Euros.

A pot five team has never qualified before.

Q. We have seen in the past that some players born in Northern Ireland switch allegiance to the Republic. How frustrating is that?

A. It's not happened in my time. I've not encountered that situation directly with a player.

The James McClean issue had already started before I was appointed.

I spoke to James and tried to convince him to play for Northern Ireland.

But his heart and mind were set on playing for the Republic, and there is nothing I can do in that situation.

The coaches and I spend a lot of time with young players and we hope the experience of playing for Northern Ireland at a young age is a positive one.

We hope that they see their international career will be a better and maybe longer one playing for Northern Ireland than with the Republic.

Q. What is the future for Northern Ireland?

A. We don't have enough young players playing first team football.

It is a concern for us down the road, in 12 months' time when some players are maybe considering retiring from the senior squad, that at this stage we don't have ready-made replacements.

A lot of our younger players are still trying to establish their careers at club level in England and Scotland.

Q. We have a tough World Cup draw, including Germany, the world champions. What do you make of it?

A. We were always going to get a big team.

Qualification for the World Cup will be extremely difficult. Only 13 nations qualify and second place only gets you a play-off.

Going forward, our focus maybe has to be more on European Championships than World Cups in terms of realistically having the opportunity to qualify.

I think the Germany game is a great one.

The new national stadium will be complete by then and the world champions will be coming to play us at home in a competitive game - and that's a great thing.

It's a really tough group with the Czech Republic in there, but it was always going to be tough.

Q. How important is a successful team to Northern Irish society?

A. Northern Ireland has a stronger identity now. There is a whole generation of people who regard themselves as being from Northern Ireland, as opposed to saying they're Irish or British or what they feel in terms of their nationality.

I always regard myself as being from Northern Ireland. That to me is no different from being Welsh or Scottish. You are part of the British Isles.

So having a Northern Ireland team which is strong and successful will help with that identity which I think is very, very important.

Hopefully it's a team that both sides of the community can relate to and can have great pride in.

Even when I played we never had any issues in relation to any sort of split because of religion.

We all got on well, there was never any problem with that.

With society as it is now in Northern Ireland, and it is a lot better than when I played at times, having that identify is a really, really positive thing.

Q. Do you have any ambitions to return to club management?

A. My contract goes to the end of the campaign and then I will review it with the Irish Football Association.

Hopefully we are reviewing it in terms of looking forward to France. We just have to see what happens.

One thing football has taught me is never to look too far ahead.

There are many factors. I've done the job for four years, which I suppose is quite long, but we'll have to wait and see.

Q. Finally - and most importantly - can we start planning for France?

A. I certainly hope so. I believe that we can do it.

Belfast Telegraph

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