Michael O’Neill’s exit as Northern Ireland manager was inevitable and just one more, minor piece of fallout from the crisis afflicting football, but that does not diminish the significance of Wednesday’s announcement. A transformational, some might argue miraculous, reign is over and, while the now exclusively Stoke manager insisted he is “not the type of person who wants to do a lap of the pitch”, wider acclaim and recognition are precisely what he deserves.
The image of O’Neill leaping through the air and hailstones at the Stade de Lyon remains vivid almost four years on. That joyous eruption had been caused by Niall McGinn’s stoppage-time goal against Ukraine, Northern Ireland’s second in a richly deserved win that would ultimately deliver a place in the knockout phase of Euro 2016.
The European Championship was Northern Ireland’s first appearance at a major tournament for 30 years and Ukraine their first conquest since Spain were beaten on home soil at the 1982 World Cup. Back then, however, Billy Bingham could call upon first-team regulars from Manchester United, Arsenal and other top-flight clubs. O’Neill’s resources were scarce by comparison, making his achievement in giving Northern Ireland its finest days and nights since the 1980s all the more remarkable.
In the buildup to Euro 2016 the former Shamrock Rovers manager felt insulted when a Polish journalist, overlooking the fact that his side had qualified as group winners, questioned how his team could hope to compete when “you’ve got players from Fleetwood”. The condescension may have irked O’Neill and he experienced it regularly, but it helped unite a fiercely committed group.
Under the manager’s instruction the Irish Football Association improved preparations for international breaks – holding training camps at Manchester City and Arsenal – and strengthened their medical and sports science teams. There is no simple remedy for increasing the depth of playing talent, however.
In what proved O’Neill’s final international in charge, November’s 6-1 defeat in Germany, Northern Ireland started with six players from the Championship, one from League One, two from the Scottish Premier League and two from Premier League clubs. And one of those, Burnley’s reserve goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, has yet to appear in a Premier League game.
Finding eligible players was just one complication for the 50-year-old who, before taking the Stoke job in November, spent his weekends and many weekday evenings travelling from his Edinburgh home to watch lower league matches. Transforming his country’s mentality and making international nights at a rejuvenated Windsor Park something to savour were other obstacles that were cleared convincingly.
O’Neill was the fourth-longest serving international manager in Europe until last week. To have lasted eight and a half years is testament to his quality, his loyalty when clubs tried to lure him away (Scotland, who have been embarrassed further by Northern Ireland’s progress, also tried) and the faith of the IFA.
When O’Neill succeeded Nigel Worthington in December 2011, he inherited a team that had won twice in 24 matches, over two years and eight months. The downward slide initially continued as O’Neill’s first qualifying campaign, for the 2014 World Cup, yielded seven points from 10 games and included defeats to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. Players were contemplating retirement or treating international duty like a jolly. “It would have been easier for me to walk away and the association to go for someone else,” O’Neill admitted when collecting the BBC’s 2015 coach of the year award in Belfast.
Greater belief, unity and workrate were not the only factors behind Northern Ireland’s subsequent recovery. O’Neill’s tactical acumen and meticulous attention to detail were as important as his man-management skills. After a flat defeat to Poland in the Euro 2016 opener, for example, he reviewed the game using different camera angles provided by Uefa and concluded his team needed more running power through the centre and out wide. Five changes ensued for the Ukraine game, including the omission of Kyle Lafferty, and his boldness was rewarded on an unforgettable day in Lyon.
There could have been more tournaments to savour. Only a scandalous penalty award separated Northern Ireland and Switzerland in the 2018 World Cup play-offs, when Xherdan Shaqiri’s volley struck Corry Evans on the back and the referee, Ovidiu Hategan, pointed to the spot for handball.
O’Neill was two play-off wins from leading Northern Ireland to a second consecutive Euros until the pandemic put everything on hold. Rescheduling the play-offs until October made it unfeasible for O’Neill to combine managing country and club into a second season and so the end came not with fanfare but a statement on the IFA’s website. The search for a successor is under way, with the under-21s coach, Ian Baraclough, a leading contender, but building on O’Neill’s legacy is an unenviable task.