Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Michael O'Neill goes down as a true legend and miracle-worker for Northern Ireland

Glory days: Aaron Hughes and Michael O’Neill celebrate the second goal against Ukraine at the Euro 2016 finals in Lyon
Glory days: Aaron Hughes and Michael O’Neill celebrate the second goal against Ukraine at the Euro 2016 finals in Lyon

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill is one of the greatest sporting leaders Northern Ireland has ever had. In football terms, he's up there with the legendary Peter Doherty and Billy Bingham, the only other men to inspire the nation to the finals of a major tournament.

O'Neill did it after 30 years of hurt. How the country revelled in the Euro 2016 finals as the Green and White Army savoured an unforgettable fortnight in France.

Without 50-year-old O'Neill, it would never have happened. He achieved the unthinkable.

That's why as he prepares to depart for a new challenge with Championship strugglers Stoke City, he should do so with our gratitude and appreciation.

When he was named boss in December 2011, having left Shamrock Rovers, the national team was at rock bottom. Results were poor, confidence was low, relationships were strained between supporters and the side and some players were questioning if putting on the green shirt was worth it.

The ex-Coleraine, Newcastle, Dundee United and Glentoran player changed all that and unlike predecessors he took a keen interest in the country's youth structures.

O'Neill's first campaign in charge may have included an embarrassing defeat in Luxembourg but behind the scenes he was building something special with clever man management skills forging spirit, togetherness and a sense amongst the squad that being a Northern Ireland footballer could be a joy rather than a pain.

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Tactically he was extremely shrewd and incredibly adept at instilling belief into players who previously had little on the international stage.

Victories started to flow and Northern Ireland qualified for Euro 2016 as group winners. They even reached the knockout stages in France.

Perhaps even more impressive was that the team continued to shine. Many felt O'Neill's side would fade away from being Kings of Lyon and become also-rans again but Northern Ireland were desperately unfortunate not to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and are in contention to make their Euro 2020 vision a reality.

The manager has lifted the likes of Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart, Stuart Dallas, Aaron Hughes, Chris Brunt, Chris Baird, Kyle Lafferty, Niall McGinn, Josh Magennis and Michael McGovern to new heights and in recent years brought in young guns such as Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Jamal Lewis, Paddy McNair, Jordan Jones and Gavin Whyte who will hopefully be around for years to come.

Given all he has achieved, Northern Ireland have been lucky to keep O'Neill this long.

He's had opportunities to manage Scotland, Celtic and Sunderland. Southampton, Leicester, West Brom and Middlesbrough considered him too.

Northern Ireland fans can point to Stoke being bottom of the Championship and ask why leave for that but there is rich potential at the club on and off the field and O'Neill will have confidence he can realise it.

Also, Stoke are willing to double his money to £1.5m a year. Add in his long-time desire to manage at club level and it's too tempting to turn down.

So, what next for Northern Ireland?

Well, ideally the Irish FA would prefer one of their own at the helm which brings capable contenders Stephen Robinson, Grant McCann, Tommy Wright and David Healy into play. Expect a few big-name 'outsiders' to throw their hats in the ring too.

For now, though, pay tribute to Michael O'Neill - a miracle worker for Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph

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