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Game changer: We profile Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

His club and international career may not have scaled the heights that were once predicted for him, but Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is now on the cusp of making sporting history with his country.

Michael O'Neill is on the verge of creating sporting history. The 46-year-old is one victory away from guiding the Northern Ireland football team to the finals of the European Championships for the first time ever and a first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup, when the legendary Billy Bingham was in charge.

And all this after he took 10 games to win his first match as manager, presided over some of the nation's most humiliating defeats and considered by some fans to be incapable of taking the national side forward. Some transformation.

It will be complete next month should Northern Ireland beat Greece at Windsor Park on October 8, or triumph in Finland three days later. Alternatively, two draws will take the side to the Euro 2016 finals next year, when France can expect an invasion of Ulster accents from the place we call home.

O'Neill is confident his players will deliver what is required. They have come a long way under him, including those embarrassing losses to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.

O'Neill has come a long way, too - and not just with Northern Ireland. His story is a fascinating one and certainly not your run-of-the-mill football tale.

He was born in Portadown, but for the majority of his youth lived in Ballymena, which is where he first fell in love with sport.

Son of Des and Patricia, Michael was a talented GAA player, turning out for Antrim minors, but it was as a footballer that he excelled. Aged just 15, the St Louis Grammar School pupil made his debut for Irish League side Coleraine.

It wasn't long before he was spotted by the professionals, with Newcastle United, then managed by ex-Northern Ireland goalkeeper Willie McFaul, snapping him up in 1987.

O'Neill was only 18 when he became the darling of the Toon Army, playing alongside Paul Gascoigne and scoring a hatful of goals. He was Northern Ireland's new sensation.

He won his first senior cap as a teenager and the future looked bright. Here was a player with an eye for a pass and an even keener one for a goal, who was going to be a star for years to come.

It didn't exactly work out that way. Rather than kick on from those explosive early days at Newcastle, O'Neill's club playing career was spent drifting from one team to another.

There may have been spells where he shone at Dundee United and Hibs, but for all his class and craft on the ball, O'Neill never truly hit the heights expected of him.

At international level, he should have won more than 50 caps, but ended up with only 31, scoring four goals, two of which came on a wet, windy night in a 5-3 victory over Austria - O'Neill's finest hour as a Northern Ireland player.

In his latter days as a footballer, he became quite the journeyman, playing for Coventry, Aberdeen, Reading and Wigan. There was an even a period in America with Portland Timbers, before he returned to play Irish League with Glentoran, where he often found time on the ball, while others always seemed in a hurry.

Intelligent at school, before he had finished playing, O'Neill returned to education, gaining qualifications in finance, including a degree from the Open University. When he retired, he worked as a financial consultant in Scotland.

He missed football, though. Always one for learning, he had completed all his coaching badges and, so, when the chance came to coach on a part-time basis at Scottish third division side Cowdenbeath, he took it. He worked for two nights a week and was paid £25.

Vastly different to the £250,000-per-year contract he has now with the Irish Football Association, but the money was irrelevant. He was back in the game. The football bug had bitten him again.

He became manager on a part-time basis of another small Scottish club, Brechin City, in 2006 and, by 2008, was appointed boss of Shamrock Rovers in the League of Ireland.

Moving back home to Northern Ireland with Portadown-born wife and Irish dancing champion Bronagh and two young daughters, Erin and Olivia, O'Neill travelled daily to Dublin to attempt to resurrect the fortunes of the League of Ireland's best-known club, which had fallen on hard times on and off the pitch.

The journeys were worth making. Soon, he had them challenging for trophies and then winning them. Next, he made history by leading Rovers into the group stages of the Europa League, where some serious money was earned.

When Nigel Worthington jumped ship from the Northern Ireland manager's job in 2011 before he was pushed, O'Neill applied.

He was shortlisted alongside two former international team-mates Iain Dowie and Jim Magilton, who had been his coach at Shamrock Rovers. O'Neill blew the interview panel away with his powerpoint presentation and ideas for the future. Dowie and Magilton may have entered the process as favourites, but it was O'Neill who was offered the job.

In taking the gig, he became the first Ulster-born Catholic to manage Northern Ireland for more than 50 years.

Even after a tough start, he didn't regret it. In his first campaign as boss, O'Neill's Northern Ireland failed to beat Luxembourg and Azerbaijan at Windsor Park and lost to both away from home.

Northern Ireland finished fifth in the group with the only win coming at home to Russia in O'Neill's 10th match. Some fans wanted him out. Some IFA officials did, too. Crucially, president Jim Shaw was not one of them.

O'Neill, who behind the scenes was building strong relationships with his players by keeping in contact with them on a weekly basis and helping them at club level, was given another contract for the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

The rest is history... or will be once Northern Ireland win next month and make it to the next year's finals in France.

His tactical awareness and man-management has come to the fore. Prior to the Euro 2016 campaign O'Neill had a long talk with troubled striker Kyle Lafferty. It proved to be inspirational, because the Fermanagh man has been scoring goals ever since. Lafferty says he is doing it for O'Neill as much as himself. The other players like and trust O'Neill, too.

Northern Ireland have won five out of their eight matches to date, drawn two and lost just one. The team, moulded by O'Neill, plays with confidence and structure.

In a recent interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he said that he was "open" to staying on as manager for another qualifying campaign, but taking Northern Ireland to a major championships for the first time in 30 years should see other potentially more lucrative offers come his way from clubs in England.

He may have an interesting decision to make after the finals in France, because there is no doubt he has ambitions of becoming a Premier League boss.

Northern Ireland fans would wish him all the best if they have just lapped up trips to Paris, Marseille or Lyon.

You get the feeling O'Neill's story has several more chapters to run, whether as boss of his country or a club.

The most diligent and hard-working Northern Ireland boss there has ever been, he can be a little spiky with questions he doesn't appreciate, but, by and large, he's co-operative and comfortable with the media and never afraid to throw out a quick-witted quip, or retort, to those he knows can handle it.

There is also a shyness to O'Neill.

Unlike some of his international buddies of years gone by, he does not have an extroverted personality. Nor do I sense he wants one, feeling content with who he is and the manager he has become.

One more win and his legendary sporting status in Northern Ireland is assured.

Steven Beacom is the Belfast Telegraph's Sports Editor

A life so far...

Age: 46

Born: Portadown, but raised in Ballymena

Status: Married to Bronagh with two daughters, Erin and Olivia

Played for: Coleraine, Newcastle United, Dundee United, Hibs, Coventry, Aberdeen, Reading, Wigan, St Johnstone, Portland Timbers, Clydebank, Glentoran and Ayr

Caps: 31

Managed: Brechin City, Shamrock Rovers, Northern Ireland

He said: "I want to make Northern Ireland a team for everyone in the country and a team that we can all be proud of." (After being appointed Northern Ireland manager)

They said: "Michael's done an amazing job and the players have been a credit." (Former Northern Ireland international and Bolton manager Neil Lennon)

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