Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Greece: Peter Doherty and Billy Bingham did it, now it's Michael O'Neill's turn


By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill is poised to join Northern Ireland managerial greats Peter Doherty and Billy Bingham by becoming only the third boss to lead the nation to the finals of a major tournament.

O'Neill, though, has revealed that he won't give a moment's thought to etching his name onto that illustrious list until it actually happens.

Only then will he reflect on what would be a monumental achievement.

The legendary Doherty was in charge when Northern Ireland reached the 1958 World Cup finals, making it all the way to the last eight, while Bingham, who played in that tournament in Sweden 57 years ago, inspired the country to the glamour stages of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.

Throughout a long history, Northern Ireland have only qualified THREE times for a tournament.

Victory over Greece at Windsor Park tomorrow would see the current crop of players make it FOUR and at the same time create history by becoming the first Northern Ireland squad to reach the European Championship finals.

Even Bingham couldn't manage that despite famously guiding his side to victory over mighty West Germany home and away during the Euro 1984 qualifying campaign.

It was Bingham who gave a teenage O'Neill, then scoring goals for Newcastle, his international debut in 1988.

The opposition? Greece.

O'Neill smiles when reminded of that fact given who his team will be facing tomorrow.

Talk about an international career, which garnered 31 caps as a player and a rollercoaster ride as manager, coming full circle.

There is the possibility that Northern Ireland could qualify on Sunday in Finland, but O'Neill doesn't want to wait that long.

He wants to get the job done as soon as possible, against Greece, and in front of the Northern Ireland fans at Windsor Park, who have grown to respect and revere him.

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Ahead of last month's qualifiers with the Faroe Islands and Hungary, O'Neill's players talked about the historic element of qualifying for Euro 2016 and emulating some of Northern Ireland's past heroes by reaching the finals of the major tournament.

Bring up Doherty and Bingham to O'Neill, however, and it is not a road he wants to go down at this stage.

He paid due deference to the pair of them, but when asked if he thinks about following in their footsteps, he said: "To be honest, I don't. To me that is something you look back on if it happens and then you get the pleasure out of it.

"Yes, it would be a nice thing to be able to qualify for a major tournament like those two greats of Northern Ireland, but until it is there I don't consider that. It may be within touching distance but I can't touch it yet so I don't focus on it all."

Some previous Northern Ireland bosses would have been shouting about the prospect of being up there with Doherty and Bingham from the rooftops.

Not O'Neill.

But then he's not your normal football person.

After finishing playing he spent time working as a financial consultant in Scotland having completed an Open University degree in maths and statistics.

Take a walk around O'Neill's house in Edinburgh and you would think he is more accountant than footballer with none of the usual paraphernalia associated with those involved in the modern game.

He said: "I'm not big into that side of football. I love football, of course, but if you were in my house you wouldn't know I was working in football or had played the game because I don't have any shirts displayed around my house.

"I kept shirts when I was a player, be it Newcastle or Northern Ireland shirts, but I keep them in a bag in a drawer. I've never been one to put them on the wall. I don't have a need to do that."

O'Neill has never been one to parade his family for the cameras either, though there is no doubt that his Portadown-born wife Bronagh and daughters Erin and Olivia provide strong support and a sense of perspective for the 46-year-old, who lived the majority of his young life in Ballymena before setting sail as a teenager to become a professional footballer with Newcastle United.

Bronagh, Erin and Olivia will fly over from Scotland to Belfast for the game with Greece.

It will be their first of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and only their second overall since husband and dad was appointed Northern Ireland boss at the end of 2011.

"They were at my first game as manager because we were living in Northern Ireland then but they haven't been to any other games. It will be great to have them there," said O'Neill, whose mum Patricia and dad Des will proudly watch the action at home on television.

After tomorrow night, all roads could lead to France for what O'Neill feels will be a cracking tournament.

He added: "I think it will be fantastic. France is accessible for fans to get to and the stadiums will be great.

"It would be brilliant for Northern Ireland to be there, not just for the players and the fans who would travel, but for the country as a whole.

"We still have work to do to get there but I believe we can do it."

Belfast Telegraph