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Michael O'Neill: from Shamrock Rovers to Northern Ireland's hero

Will O’Neill continue his successful streak in France?

Image: Jonathan Brady

CURRENTLY PREPARING TO lead Northern Ireland to their first-ever European Championship, as well as their first major tournament in 30 years, Michael O’Neill is in a very comfortable position.

After beating Greece 3-1 last October to reach the finals, O’Neill was, and has since been seen as a hero by Northern Ireland fans and players alike. Under his guidance, Northern Ireland became the first fifth-seed nation to top a European Championship qualifying group.

They face a tough run in France however, grouped with Poland, Ukraine and world champions Germany, but O’Neill will be hoping his side can cause another upset, this time on a bigger stage.

In March, the former player signed a four-year contract extension, making him the highest paid manager in Northern Ireland’s history. He was also heavily linked with the Celtic job before Brendan Rodgers took the reins, but O’Neill’s focus continued to remain on France.

This wasn’t always the case for the Portadown native. His first two games in charge of the Green and White Army saw them concede nine goals and score none, leaving fans thinking it was going to be the same old story, but this time under a new manager.

Off the back of a messy departure from Shamrock Rovers, mainly due to a breakdown in his relationship with the club’s board, this was the last thing O’Neill needed. His new international role should have been a fresh start.

The 46-year-old left Shamrock Rovers after their historic 2011 season, after helping the club to back-to-back League of Ireland titles, the Setanta Sports Cup and Europa League qualification.

“I wouldn’t say it is amicable but it is a parting of ways” O’Neill said of his departure from the Hoops at the time.

From there, things began to improve. Despite finishing fifth in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group, O’Neill’s side secured some impressive results – a 1-1 away draw with Portugal and a home win over Russia.

Fast forward to October 2015 and they secure qualification to Euro 2016 with a game to spare, finishing top of Group F ahead of Romania and Hungary.

Tweet by @Geoff Dunne Source: Geoff Dunne/Twitter

What’s behind this significant rise to Euro 2016 and heroic work by Michael O’Neill? Firstly, he improved and modernised the entire set-up, prompting experienced players like Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird to stay around.

He has developed players that were on the periphery of the squad before his arrival. Conor McLaughlin, Oliver Norwood and Jamie Ward have all broken into the starting team and played major parts in the qualification campaign under the watchful eye of O’Neill.

Another player he has had a huge influence on is Kyle Lafferty. The current Norwich City striker has said that O’Neill is one of the best managers he’s ever worked with, showing through his seven goals in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

Before O’Neill took over, Northern Ireland didn’t have a consistency of selection, their discipline was quite poor and there was a sense of frustration among the group of players.

“There was an acceptance within Northern Ireland, within the country, within the supporters, in general, that we were never going to go to a major finals again.” O’Neill told Graham Hunter in The Big Interview.

A huge thing that O’Neill has brought to the table is communication with players. After working in finance, he discovered that he could transfer some of these skills into his game plan. The former Northern Ireland international is known to use statistics to convince his players that they can win.

PFA Player of the Year Awards 2016 - Grosvenor House Hotel Source: Nick Potts

Along with this, O’Neill uses realism to get through to his players. “We have to recognise that if we play against teams with better players, bigger nations, that we may not have as much of the ball as we would like” he told Hunter. 

“We do a lot of tactical work, we’ve become a good team without the ball.”

Another feature of O’Neill’s success has been improving his side’s away record. Northern Ireland started their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign with 18 consecutive losses away from Windsor Park. Since then, O’Neill’s side picked up vital away points in Hungary, Greece and the Faroe Islands in Group F.

Their away record now stands more important than ever as they travel to France. Holding Slovakia to a scoreless draw in Trnava last Saturday will be a huge boost to O’Neill and his players, especially after the Slovaks beat Germany 3-1 the previous weekend.

Currently on a 12-game unbeaten streak and hoping to continue their run in Nice, Northern Ireland are one of the most in-form teams heading into the competition, and a lot of the reasoning behind this is O’Neill’s work.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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