Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016 countdown: All roads point to France for the magical O'Neills

By Steven Beacom

Martin O'Neill had just seen his Republic of Ireland side qualify for next year's European Championships.

They had gone the extra mile to make it to France, reaching the finals through the play-offs, beating Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 in a highly charged atmosphere at the Aviva stadium in Dublin on Monday to win 3-1 on aggregate.

O'Neill could have been forgiven for savouring the moment and all the adulation coming his way, especially since he and his team's chances of qualification had been written off in certain quarters over the previous 12 months.

Not his style. Interviewed post-match, as celebrations carried on around him, without prompting, he paid tribute to the achievements of other managers who had qualified for Euro 2016 before him.

First in his thoughts was Michael O'Neill, who created history last month by inspiring Northern Ireland to the Euro finals for the first time in the country's history.

Martin's praise for Michael told you much about the man and the relationship between the pair of them. They enjoy each other's company and have much in common in life as well as football.

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For instance both are married with two daughters and are university-educated - Martin studied law at Queen's before his football career took off, while in the middle of his, Michael decided to take an Open University degree in maths and statistics.

They are articulate and intelligent individuals who can hold their own in conversations about world affairs as much as world football.

Both played Gaelic games as youngsters and then for Irish League clubs - Martin at Distillery and Michael at Coleraine - where they were spotted and signed by Nottingham Forest and Newcastle United respectively.

Michael may have been a teenage striking sensation but ended up a canny midfielder, like his namesake, both of them gaining international honours and feeling inspired by legendary Northern Ireland boss Billy Bingham.

Martin's playing career was more successful - he was a league title and European Cup winner with Forest and Bingham's captain in the 1982 World Cup in Spain - but Michael experienced some memorable moments too for his various clubs and country.

As players the pair of them were very much their own men. That didn't change when they moved into management.

While Michael, one senses, is only just kicking off what promises to be a long and outstanding career in the dug-out, Martin has been around for years guiding Leicester City to unprecedented success and Celtic to numerous domestic honours plus the Uefa Cup final. At Aston Villa and Sunderland his efforts were never truly appreciated.

As Republic boss, they are now. Ditto what the younger O'Neill, by 17 years, has delivered for Northern Ireland. Each have squeezed the maximum out of their squads.

Northern Ireland legend and winner of 91 caps Mal Donaghy is one of the few to have played alongside both at international level. He has huge admiration for the master motivators and shrewd tacticians.

"Martin was the captain of Northern Ireland when I came into the team. Even then before he was a manager he had this special quality of being able to get the best out of you," said the former Luton and Manchester United defender.

"I remember several times coming in at half-time thinking I could have done better but Martin would speak to you and convince you that you weren't just the best player on the night but the best player in the world and your performance would improve as a result.

"His man management as a player was fantastic and his record as a manager tells you it is the same now.

"As a captain he led by example by encouraging players and making them feel better. What we achieved in the 1982 World Cup reflects superbly on Billy Bingham as manager but it also reflects well on Martin as captain."

On the current Northern Ireland boss, Donaghy, the IFA's development officer for disability football, is just as complimentary.

"Michael has star quality. At the start of his reign results didn't go too kindly but the players and the IFA could see that progress was being made and in the European Championship everything clicked and we have got into a winning habit which is great to see. Michael is definitely getting the best out of the players," said Donaghy.

"Things have really changed for Northern Ireland in a very positive way and you have to look at the man at the top for making it happen. Michael has introduced an attractive style of play and real belief in the squad.

"I think with Michael and Martin in charge, both Northern Ireland and the Republic could make an impact in France."

At Euro 2016 Northern Ireland and the Republic will feature in the same major tournament for the first time ever and could meet in the knock-out stages. It will also be the first time two men from Northern Ireland have managed national teams at the same major tournament.

And while Bingham played and managed at the World Cup, Martin O'Neill will become the first Ulsterman to play in a World Cup and manage at the Euro finals.

The awesome O'Neills. Making history. Breaking records. Achieving greatness.

Belfast Telegraph