From Finance to Football: The Long Journey of N Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill

Steve BrennerSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 7, 2016

Shaun Campbell / Getty Images

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill doesn’t fit the mould of his UEFA European Championship rivals this summer.

His nation has no professional league. At O'Neill's disposal are just five Premier League footballers. Some aren’t even regulars. The rest of his squad is made up of players operating beneath England’s top flight and at other British and Irish outposts.

O’Neill ended 30 years of hurt for the Northern Irish, securing qualification to a major tournament for the first time since 1986. His players, staff and the fans are riding on the crest of a wave to Euro 2016—fueled by excitement and wonder.

By the time Northern Ireland meet the might of world champions Germany in Paris on June 21, a ticket to the knockout stages may have already been stamped.

Underdogs they may be, but make no mistake, their opening two matches against Poland and Ukraine are winnable.

Comparing the resources at Germany coach Joachim Low’s disposal to the tools in O’Neill’s possession is, however, a futile experiment.

Northern Ireland's captain Steven Davis (L) and coach Michael O'Neill (L) attend a training session while water spray at their training ground in Saint George de Reneins on June 6, 2016 during the Euro 2016 football tournament.   / AFP / PHILIPPE DESMAZES

The players. The money. The infrastructure. The history. The Germans are superior in every measurable way.

How many times has Low taken a rail-replacement bus service home following a fruitless scouting mission at a German third-division match for example?

"It’s night and day when comparing us to the major nations," O’Neill told Bleacher Report. "I have traveled three or four hours to watch some players. More often than not I have just got one or two players playing—I’m not keeping my eye on five or six.

"Having two in a game is a high number for me, but when you turn up and they aren’t playing, it can be a soul-destroying experience. You get used it. Going to games is part of football. Managers perhaps don’t go to as many games as they used to thanks to the advent of technology."

It was on a recent scouting trip that O'Neill endured a cramped mini-van journey from the north of England to Edinburgh after heavy rain derailed his plans.

"The train was cancelled at Carlisle, so I had to get back up to Edinburgh somehow," he said.

"It wasn't one of my better experiences as an international manager. That’s for sure. I don’t think anyone knew who I was. They were just the same as me—upset at the whole situation of not going further than Carlisle."

While Premier League observers will be aware of Southampton’s Steven Davis and West Bromwich Albion's former Manchester United defender Jonny Evans, the rest of O'Neill’s squad are nowhere near as familiar.

Jonny Evans in action for Northern Ireland
Jonny Evans in action for Northern IrelandCharles McQuillan/Getty Images

Striker Conor Washington, now at Queens Park Rangers, was a postman playing semi-professional football four years ago. Peterborough United defender Michael Smith didn’t make his international debut until the age of 27 yet has impressed.

Full-back Lee Hodson was last season out on loan with Kilmarnock from Milton Keynes Dons.

This is a squad with no stellar names. No standout superstar.

"We have only around 40 professional players in England and Scotland (in the top divisions), and from that, I have to pick a 23-man squad," said O’Neill—a bright and innovative coach who took the job at 42 to become one of the youngest international managers in Europe back in 2011.

O'Neill is 46 now and leaving no stone unturned in his quest to spark an upset. He spent time with Ireland’s rugby team, as well as Belfast boxing hero Carl Frampton, in a bid to inspire his players. He insists they have nothing to lose in France.

"For someone like Conor McLaughlin, who plays for Fleetwood Town, to have the chance to play in the Parc des Princes against the world champions is something you relish," he said. "We will embrace the tournament and have a go—we won’t fear anyone.

"We should feel like we belong there, not making up the numbers or by accident. We have to play in the same manner, but the gulf in terms of resources between us and the other nations is huge. The quality of the players, the clubs those players are at. Everything."

O'Neill pictured in his Hibernian days

O'Neill should benefit from not having the kind of egos around who could upset a squad dynamic. "My dilemmas aren’t the same as Roy Hodgson’s or Didier Deschamps' in terms of the level of players they have to leave out," he said.

"My job is different—we have a strong spirit in the group. Now we have to maintain that. I won’t be having too many sleepless nights about selection.

"Equally, my job is to get as much out of every player as possible and give them the belief they can cope at this level of international football. We go to France as group winners."

A talented striker who played with Paul Gascoigne at Newcastle United at the start of his career, O’Neill’s varied CV includes playing spells at Dundee United, Hibernian, Coventry City, Wigan Athletic, St. Johnstone, Portland Timbers, Clydebank, Glentoran and Ayr United.

Once that nomadic existence came to an end, a breather—and time to reassess—was vital. Management could wait.

"I qualified as a financial consultant while I was playing and worked for two or three years at financiers Ernst and Young when I stopped, then worked in a mortgage-related business I was involved in," he said. 

“I always studied while I was playing, I had quite an academic background before I turned pro, so that always gave me an option should I need it. It quite something to think back at all that now, but your experiences outside of football help you an awful lot."

O'Neill, who made his international debut at 18, believes his respite before becoming a manager was vital to his evolution.

Conor Washington, Will Grigg and Kyle Lafferty
Conor Washington, Will Grigg and Kyle LaffertyCharles McQuillan/Getty Images

“Too many go from playing to coaching to management," he said. "Others go straight from playing to management.

“They adapt well, but I think it’s good to come out of it for a while and have a look from the outside so you can develop other skills that are transferable into football. My experiences in the workplace has benefited me.”

Odds as long as 500-1 are being offered if you fancy betting on Northern Ireland being crowned Euro 2016 winners. 

Yet this is the year of Leicester City winning the Premier League. It was O’Neill’s team who beat Claudio Ranieri’s Greece at the start of the qualifying campaign—a result that sent the Italian closer to the inevitable sack.

Everyone knows what happened next there, so excuse the optimism and positivity on display from the Northern Irishman.

While the last attempt to reach the World Cup was a disaster, this next one for European tournament glory has already been a triumph. O'Neill's team finished top of their group in qualification, ahead of Romania and five points clear of third-place Hungary—a welcome antidote to years of misery.

"The pressure is off to an extent," the Northern Ireland manager added. "Anything we get out of the tournament will be seen as a positive. Just to get there has been an amazing achievement.

"But the expectation comes from within, and no one in our squad is going into the tournament with the mindset of just being happy to be there. We have aspirations—we want to get out of the group and reach the knockout stages."

To do that, you'd have to imagine at least four points are required from the games against Poland and Ukraine. Whatever happens, O'Neill is intent on making the tournament a platform for more success to come for Northern Ireland.

UEFA Nations League @UEFAEURO

No. Way. Through. Northern Ireland extend unbeaten run to 12 games, the longest of any side going into #EURO2016 https://t.co/D579WRLd8t

"We just want to make sure it’s not another 30 years before we qualify for a major tournament again. This can be the start for us."

In many ways, Euro 2016 signals the commencement of the next phase of O’Neill’s managerial life. Participating in the European Championship will be the biggest test of his professional career.

O'Neill has been linked with Celtic in the past, while other clubs in Scotland and England will surely have a watchful eye on the Northern Ireland manager’s direction.

International coaches often long for the day-to-day involvement afforded to their colleagues operating in club football. A new four-year deal was recently penned, but nothing can be discounted.

"I am still young, so I don’t envisage spending my whole time as an international manager," he said.

"Unless we win it, and then I will just retire."

All quotes gained firsthand unless otherwise stated.


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