PAST, present and future combined at Orchard County Primary School on Friday when the Northern Ireland manager returned to his roots to cheer on the next generation of players.
Michael O’Neill enjoyed a successful playing career in the professional game before moving into club management ahead of his current role as international boss.
However, Portadown-born O’Neill was happy to take a few hours out of his hectic schedule to spend time with Orchard County pupils.
The prime aim of the visit was to allow O’Neill the chance to offer his congratulations in person to those players connected to Orchard County’s superb haul of five prizes inside a full year.
The Northern Ireland boss was happy to take part in an informal question-and-answer session in front of assembled boys and girls before a one-on-one meeting with the successful football players.
“It was wonderful of Michael and the Irish Football Association to accept our invitation and then a real delight to hear the Northern Ireland manager speak with such enthusiasm about grassroots development in this country,” said Stephen Blevins, the Orchard County Primary School principal. “The school only dates back to 2005 but we managed to lift five trophies in 2012.
“We are the current holders of the Mid-Ulster Small Schools’ League, Mid-Ulster Small Schools’ Cup, Richmount Primary School Five-A-Side Cup, Neill Buckley Memorial Cup and Northern Ireland Small Schools’ Cup. “Michael really got into the spirit of the Q-and-A session and was happy to spend time chatting to pupils and signing autographs on the day.
“He met with the football players and even stayed to watch one of the coaching sessions.
“We were expecting a brief visit but Michael stayed for a considerable amount of time and commended the staff and pupils for such dedication and enthusiasm.
“He also challenged the successful squad to continue on with their development with a view to possibly even attaining international honours at schools, youth and full level.
“Following nationwide consultations, the Irish Football Association is about to launch a new small-sided games strategy which highlights the need to place less emphasis on results at this age.
“It is hoped that this will ensure that future focus is very firmly placed on individual player development.
“Michael came across as a firm believer in the small-sided games philosophy and I also believe that this new format will allow children at Orchard County and other schools to continue to shine for generations to come.”
Chris Wright, the Irish Football Association primary schools’ coach connected to Orchard County Primary School, staged a session with the pupils in front of O’Neill.
“It was a great reward for the players to have Michael O’Neill offer his congratulations as they have all worked so hard,” said Wright. “In my role with the IFA Primary Schools’ coaching programme I work on the fundamentals with groups of pupils each week and see just how much the Orchard County students respond to our methods.
“The fundamentals coaching is applicable across a variety of sporting skills.”
Keith Gibson, the Craigavon-based Irish Football Association grassroots development officer, emphasised the importance of the small-sided games strategy
“Players getting success by taking part in seven-a-side and nine-a-side games is certainly the way forward,” he said. “Across Europe this approach is seen as the best way to aid development, especially in schools the size of Orchard County.
“I regularly see how productive the links between schools and clubs can be in this region.
“To hear the Northern Ireland manager discuss his memories of schools’ football was superb and the pupils got so much out of the day.”