LIFE has turned full circle for Portadown-born Michael O’Neill, newly-appointed manager of Northern Ireland’s international football team - a man with a challenging job on his hands after creating something of a miracle with famed Dublin club Shamrock Rovers.
After a soccer journey via Ballymena, Newcastle United and various parts of Scotland - not to mention his worldwide travels as he gained 33 caps playing for NI - he is now back, a few miles from his original Enniscrone Park home, with his wife Bronagh (Portadown-born, of course) and their two young daughters.
The son of Des and Patricia O’Neill, the family moved to Ballymena when Michael was five, and now he lives in the Gilford area, the first Northern Ireland manager for the best part of half-a-century to actually live in the province.
“I’m delighted to be given the post from a distinguished list of three,” he said (Jim Magilton and Iain Dowie were the disappointed two). “Of course, it’s a challenge. Any manager wants to be in charge of a winning team. I start on the first of February, my first match in charge is against Norway at the end of the month, and I’m really looking forward to getting things going.”
On the vexed question of Northern Ireland footballers choosing to play for the south, he said, “Of course, I’ll talk to the up-and-coming stars and try to persuade them to stay north. Naturally, I want the best players available and that’s a priority.”
His football talents came to the fore at Ballymena’s St Louis Grammar School and he played in the NI schoolboys line-up along with the aforementioned Magilton, was signed by Coleraine where he made his debut at the age of 15, and went to Newcastle (managed by ex-Bannsider Iam McFaul) and, as an attacking midfielder, was their leading scorer in his first season of 1987-88.
He made his international debut that very season (a 3-2 reverse by Greece) and his last act in the green shirt was in 1999, a 1-1 draw with Armenia.
And on the club scene, he moved to Dundee United, Hiberian of Edinburgh, Wigan, Portland Timbers in America and ended his career with Glentoran.
In the meantime, he settled in Edinburgh, met the former Bronagh Magee “while on a trip back home”, a champion Irish dancer who also proudly wore the green (the colours of Irene McCann’s fabled school of dancing in Portadown). She is the daughter of respected Portadown couple Eamon and Marie Magee, a graduate of Queen’s University and a primary school teacher.
Michael entered football management during his time in Scotland, initially as assistant boss with Cowdenbeath, then in charge of Brechin City, whom he took to the Second Division play-offs in 2007.
Meanwhile - with football managers invariably facing a rather uncertain future - he acquired qualifications for the world of finance, including a degree in the Open University, and worked in insurance for five years, combining it with part-time football management.
Then, in 2008, he returned to Ireland, settling in the Gilford area and taking over Shamrock Rovers, with unprecedented success. His first season saw them runners-up in the league, followed by two titles, Setanta Cup success and a minor miracle in the Europa League.
A 3-2 aggregate victory over Partizan Belgrade made him the first manager to guide a southern team through to the group stages, and there could have been even better times ahead - but his contract was up and he eyed the Northern Ireland job.
Perhaps he was a surprise choice, given the fact that he had never managed in England, but Michael O’Neill has a quiet determination and is undaunted by the tough prospects of guiding Northern Ireland through to the first World Cup finals (2014) since 1986 - even though the opponents are Russia, Portugal, Israel, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
“It’s a real challenge,” he said. “But I’ve had the joy of playing for my country 33 times and the main challenge will be to instil that pride into all the players. There’s nothing to beat the thrill of actually playing the game. That will be the ethos of my management. I can’t wait to get started.”