GARY ‘Gazza’ Clarke, vice-chairperson of the Castlederg Northern Ireland Supporters’ Club (CDNISC) regaled Michael O’Neill as “the man who brought a nation together, gave us unbelievable memories, so get that statue up!”
This passionate statement which could be repeated by many thousands brought me back to the first time I saw Michael managing the Shamrock Rovers side against Flora Talinn in the capital of Estonia in July 2011.
O’Neill, displaying his fine European pedigree, led the Rovers on an impressive trail which ultimately led to them qualifying for the group stages of the Europa League.
So it wasn’t long that the 31 times capped O’Neill was on the radar of the paymasters of the Irish Football Association, agreeing to be the international manager in December 2011. I was delighted that O’Neill was appointed Northern Ireland manager, incidentally the first Irish Catholic to take up the role, and and during his tenure he transformed how the whole international was set up.
O’Neill was dutifully meticulous in his planning, had well-honed man management strategies and possesed the attributes to make players perform to the best of their ability.
Most of all for me he fully recognised and utilised the strengths of his team. O’Neill worked extensively on set piece routines which Northern Ireland often profited from from, moulding a team which was difficult to break down. He actively encouraged young players from all backgrounds to represent the country of their birth.
I was fortunate that in October 2012 Michael agreed to visit McClintock Primary School, not an easy request to fulfil as he resided in Edinburgh! I was impressed with his down to earth demeanour and natural affinity with children.
However, it was clearly obvious that he was a determined man who despite an inauspicious start to his international career had the innate ability to take his team to the dizzy heights. I chuckle when I recall first greeting him at the school with a black eye and half a dozen stiches. I don’t think he believed me when I said it had happened the previous Saturday playing in a third division F&W fixture for Drumquin United against Dunbreen Rovers contesting a high ball!
During his historic visit to the school to open up our new soft play area O’Neill conducted an entertaining and insightful Q+A with the children, gave inspiring feedback to the pupils on a football session taken by IFA coach, John Molloy and freely signed autographs.
Years later O’Neill was watching a U-21 NI International and he spotted me at the half-time reception. He immediately made a bee line towards me and asked about the pupils and the school. This simply summed up the man for me.
Whilst writing this piece I read in the press that O’Neill said it was the redevelopment of the National Stadium that was the ‘secret weapon’ that inspired the NI rise. I firmly believe that it was the manager who was pivotal in creating the team that qualified for the 2016 Euros in France for the first time and remained competitive since.
I was fortunate to have travelled with the IFA for each of NI four games and these fond memories will always be with me – the non-stop ‘Norn Iron’ singing during the German game, the unforgettable victory against Ukraine with the hailstones providing the musical backdrop, the camaraderie with the Polish fans and the totally undeserved defeat against Wales which prevented our progress.
We owe these mosaic of wonderful memories to Michael’s tenure.
As a final comment let’s go back to the beginning of this piece on Michael O’Neill, our football messiah, let’s dare to dream, let’s build that statue.
Posted: 3:07 pm May 3, 2020