Belfast Telegraph

Watch: Fans are sad, but there's no hard feelings as manager O'Neill set to bid farewell

Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

The hero of the Green and White Army David Healy was displaying all the nimble footwork that bamboozled David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and co 14 years ago as he sidestepped questions yesterday about the shock departure of Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.

Healy, the current Linfield boss, was leaving Windsor Park for lunch at the same time as the Irish Football Association were issuing a statement from another part of the stadium confirming that O'Neill was quitting his job for English Championship team Stoke City.

Just yards away from a giant picture of Healy scoring his never-to-be-forgotten winner in the 1-0 triumph over England at the national stadium in the World Cup qualifiers in 2005, the Killyleagh man said he was looking forward to last night's cross-border cup final against Dundalk - but refused to be drawn on anything else.

When asked about O'Neill's successor or if he would be throwing his hat into the ring for the job, Healy said he was "keeping my head down".

He may have been tight-lipped, but across town on the Shankill Road Healy's name was very definitely on the lips of Northern Ireland fans as a contender for the manager's job.

So too the likes of Stephen Robinson of Motherwell; Tommy Wright of St Johnstone, and Ian Baraclough, the current Northern Ireland under-21 manager.

At the First Shankill NI Supporters' Club Michael O'Neill's decision to quit came as a shock, but there were no hard feelings, no anger.

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Ivan Little meets fans Eddie Harrison (left) and Campbell Bickerstaff at the Northern Ireland Supporters’ Club on the Shankill Road in Belfast
Ivan Little meets fans Eddie Harrison (left) and Campbell Bickerstaff at the Northern Ireland Supporters’ Club on the Shankill Road in Belfast
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill
Michael O’Neill celebrating his team’s second goal with Aaron Hughes and Jamie Ward in the Uefa Euro 2016 match against Ukraine
Northern Ireland supporter Alex Hill says O’Neill has been a fantastic manager

Instead it was just understanding and well-wishes for the man who guided his unfancied players to the finals of the Euros in France in 2016 and to the brink of the World Cup in Russia two years later.

On the exterior wall of the club O'Neill's team have their place on a mural of photographs alongside Northern Ireland sides who wrote their way into the history books with their glory days at the World Cup Finals in Sweden 1958; Spain 1982 and Mexico in 1986.

O'Neill and some of the players from the golden eras of the past popped by to see the mural.

"Obviously I'm disappointed," said Alex Hill, as he sat at the bar of the Shankill club. "But there can't be any grudges. Michael has been a fantastic manager. He's done well for us and he is entitled to go. At least he is leaving on good terms."

Alex saw O'Neill work his magic in France three years ago - for free. "I won a Carlsberg competition for a trip to the Euros. And it was a wonderful time with a wonderful team and a wonderful manager," he recalled, adding that Healy would be a good fit for the Northern Ireland job.

One man who didn't want to give his name said he was surprised that O'Neill had opted for a club like Stoke, who sit at the bottom of the Championship.

Gary McAllister, Amalgamation of Official NI Supporters Clubs
Gary McAllister, Amalgamation of Official NI Supporters Clubs

"He was certain to take a job in club football one day. But Stoke City wouldn't have been the first club that came to mind," he said.

"It seems an odd choice especially after Michael turned down the chance to manage the Scottish international team."

Campbell Bickerstaff thought O'Neill's move to the Potteries could have been influenced by his desire to find a job that gave him daily hands-on experience of football, rather than the international role which involved just a few games every year.

Ivan Little meets fan Billy Elwood at the Northern Ireland Supporters’ Club on the Shankill Road in Belfast
Ivan Little meets fan Billy Elwood at the Northern Ireland Supporters’ Club on the Shankill Road in Belfast

Working behind the bar in the club, Marie Calvert said she was sorry O'Neill had quit, adding: "I'm really sad that he's leaving us.

"He has done a brilliant job. He will be badly missed. He's been up here on the Shankill and he seemed like a lovely man."

Billy Ellwood said he was gutted that O'Neill had resigned but he was pleased he had agreed to stay in charge of Northern Ireland in the vital upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against Holland and Germany.

Billy added: "Next to Billy Bingham there's never been a manager like him. He could get the best out of players who were mediocre in club football.

"It'll be a tough job to replace him. I've been thinking along the lines of David Healy, but who knows?"

Some English pundits have claimed that Martin O'Neill or Neil Lennon might fill the Northern Ireland managerial hot seat.

But on the Shankill not even the most speculative gambler was prepared to wager any money on either of them.

Eddie Harrison said O'Neill would have his work cut out saving Stoke from relegation.

"But if anyone can do a job there, it's Michael O'Neill. He has worked miracles for Northern Ireland," he added.

Tommy Anderson said he wanted to thank O'Neill for what he has done for Northern Ireland.

He added: "I say the best of luck to Michael. He has made us all proud. But these things happen in football. People move on."

Gary McAllister of the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs predicted that fans will give Michael O'Neill an emotional farewell as he takes charge of the game against Holland at Windsor Park next Saturday.

He said: "The match was always going to be a big one. But it will now have even more significant as the fans will want to give Michael a great send-off, hopefully with a crucial win.

"His departure is a sad day for Northern Ireland football but we all knew it was coming because Michael has done such a magnificent job for us, attracting interest from club sides for a long time."

Gary said he had heard a lot of names put forward as the next boss but his hope was that a former international would get the nod.

He added: "In the past the IFA haven't always chosen the front runner.

"Back in the day Michael O'Neill was seen by some as the third choice for the job. But Michael was chosen and what a job he has done."

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