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John Laverty

Why Michael O'Neill is arguably Northern Ireland's best ever boss - even above Billy Bingham

John Laverty


Gone but not forgotten: Michael O'Neill

Gone but not forgotten: Michael O'Neill

�INPHO/William Cherry

Gone but not forgotten: Michael O'Neill

It was 35 years, 10 months and 14 days ago. Those devastating words. "It's not you, it's me." A brutal, merciless, callous, dispassionate, unambiguous assassination.

How could you do that to me? Why, why... WHY?

I'm over it now.

Prior to that life-altering moment, this dumpee had been spending idyllic time at the dumper's family home in Brigadie Gardens, Ballymena.

From the 'den' we frequented, you could see Des and Pat O'Neill's well-tended garden.

Their young son, Michael, was out there in all weathers. A wiry teenager with that shock of fair hair, he looked like a miniature Art Garfunkel.

Pretty nifty with a ball, too.

"He's so dedicated, a star in the making," remarked my future ex-girlfriend, to which I replied, witheringly: "Nah, he'll never make it. The upper body strength isn't there, and he's the wrong shape for a footballer..."

A few weeks after my excursions to Brigadie Gardens were abruptly ended, the St Louis Grammar schoolboy signed for Coleraine FC.

Three years later, he was playing alongside superstar Paul Gascoigne for Newcastle United and en route to his Northern Ireland debut.

Dedicated indeed. Determined too, intelligent, ambitious, supremely confident in his ability… yet pragmatic with it.

For instance, the night before earning one of his 31 international caps from an unfortunately injury-blighted career, Michael sat a crucial exam he'd pass prior to obtaining an Open University degree and post-retirement stint with financial analysts Ernst & Young.

Luckily for us Northern Ireland fans, it's one of the few things he didn't stick with.

And now he's gone. It wasn't us, it was him.

After eight and a half years, the latter part of which was ecstatically historic, 'Magic Mike' has officially relinquished the reins of a job that made his name and opened the door to, hopefully, a similarly successful career in big-time club management.

There's a saying that everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end, but Michael is an exception to that rule.

He relinquishes his post without warm handshakes and back-slapping, but with the best wishes of fans and former employers ringing in his ears and pinging on his phone.

You can reminisce and eulogise about the achievements, the hope-and-glory nights at a boisterous, newly-rebuilt Windsor Park and beyond, that unforgettable victory over Ukraine in Lyon, even the battling defeats.

For me, though, the best way to gauge the O'Neill era is to recall the utter mess he inherited in December 2011 and compare it to where we are now.

Naturally he merits the bulk of the plaudits, but so, too, do the players who bought into his aspirations - and the Irish FA themselves for standing by him.

A solitary win in his first 18 games wasn't exactly a portent for undiluted optimism - and, even allowing for Norn Iron's propensity for ignominy, nothing will match our boys losing to Luxembourg at a rain-soaked Stade Jose Barthel in 2013.

Had the IFA bigwigs conceded back then that they'd made a terrible mistake in appointing a wet-behind-the-ears boss, no one would have blamed them.

Instead, however, they urged the admittedly disillusioned O'Neill to stay on for the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and the rest, as they say…

He's right up there with Billy Bingham and Peter Doherty as our wee country's finest managers - indeed, arguably the best of them all when you analyse the strength and quality of the squads those other two icons got to work with in their respective halcyon days. Michael promised he would do his utmost to produce a competent, competitive team the GAWA could be proud of and, if anything, he overachieved.

Here's to him bringing success to a Stoke City club which, from now on, will have his full commitment.

And let's hope The Potters give the 50-year-old sufficient time to achieve something meaningful and memorable.

Michael's departure, prior to the Euro 2020 semi-final play-off in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is understandable after the long-term postponement of that fixture due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It's wrong, however, for misty-eyed fans to harp on about how he "didn't deserve" such a low-key send-off.

Perhaps not, but the people who contracted, and eventually succumbed, helpless and tragically alone, to the remorseless cruelty of Covid-19 didn't deserve their ultimate fates either, nor the sparsely populated funerals their grieving loved ones were consequently subjected to.

And before you speculate on Stephen Robinson succeeding Michael on a hefty six-figure salary, spare a thought for the millions who, through no fault of their own, are now out of a job.

In these unique and strangest of times, in this diseased and suddenly unpredictable world, it's essential we continue keeping a sense of perspective.

That's something Michael O'Neill is renowned for.

Belfast Telegraph