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Press Eye Belfast - Northern Ireland - 2nd  November 2009.
Belfast Telegraph staff Images Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill transformed Northern Irish whipping boys and now we must build on that legacy

Graham Luney


 

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Nice one: Niall McGinn is mobbed after scoring against Hungary

Nice one: Niall McGinn is mobbed after scoring against Hungary

Nice one: Niall McGinn is mobbed after scoring against Hungary

There's rarely a fairytale ending in sport and it took a global pandemic to end this beautiful relationship.

Michael O'Neill reached his breaking point. The story was becoming more about him rather than the Northern Ireland team and that couldn't go on.

He has given an incredible eight years' service and it will always be surprising he lasted that long.

After guiding his country to the Euro 2016 finals in France, it seemed certain a club would have the wisdom to swoop for the former Shamrock Rovers manager but there was no movement.

Scotland came calling after World Cup play-off disappointment but the Irish FA found a money tree and held onto their prized asset.

The irony now is that when he was appointed Northern Ireland boss in December 2011, O'Neill didn't feel ready for the role and accepted it as he "might never be offered it again".

Now it feels like he has the keys to Windsor Park, or the National Football Stadium if you prefer, and he would be welcomed back with open arms should his managerial career at club level not take off again.

Northern Ireland used to be whipping boys with pride and passion but little organisation and intelligence. Michael changed all that.

He set about transforming facilities off the pitch and the mindset on it. He gave the players confidence and belief.

While the run to the finals in France was an extraordinary achievement, possibly even more remarkable is how he was able to root out any complacency and make sure the players remained hungry for more.

Northern Ireland weren't about landing a knockout blow on England or Spain anymore.

Qualification for major finals was achievable with a little luck and a huge dose of ability and courage.

The early days were bumpy but the Irish FA, to their credit, kept the faith and Michael knew what needed to be done.

Northern Ireland teams had been crumbling late in games and that needed to change.

Winning breeds confidence and if you can get out of the blocks quickly in a qualifying campaign, belief, momentum and hope can carry you a long way. The 2-1 win in Budapest set the miracle in motion.

O'Neill's preparation and attention to detail is meticulous so you can imagine his frustration when he only had one training pitch. Premier League clubs like Manchester City and Arsenal had to lend a helping hand and the squad also used Carton House in Dublin.

But the continued postponement of the Euro play-off with Bosnia-Herzegovina forced the 50-year-old to walk away, with his head held high.

Stoke City are the big winners and the Green and White Army will hope that O'Neill's legacy is not wasted.

Michael had a special relationship with his players and his departure is sad in many ways.

It hurts he won't be able to pull off one more magic trick by steering Northern Ireland to the Euro finals next summer.

But remaining Northern Ireland and Stoke City manager was beyond even him.

Let's hope he's guest of honour in June next year when Northern Ireland are travelling around Europe and still a respected force in world football.

Belfast Telegraph