Sporting talent runs deep in Michael O'Neill's family genes
A TEENAGE prodigy, with links to counties Antrim and Armagh, whose talent was soon shown on a wider stage.
No, not Michael O’Neill, but his father Dessie, who was selected as Ulster’s Railway Cup hurling goalkeeper while still a teenager.
A teenage prodigy, with links to counties Antrim and Armagh, whose talent was soon shown on a wider stage.
No, not Michael O’Neill, but his older brother Sean, who represented Northern Ireland in the 800m at the 1982 Commonwealth Games while still at school in Ballymena, having lived in Portadown.
Sean still holds the NI Junior (U20s) men’s 800m record, 1:48.82, set in June 1982 in Antrim and won the NI 800m championship at the age of 20 in 1984.
A teenage prodigy, with links to counties Antrim and Armagh, whose talent was soon shown on a wider stage.
OK, that description applied to Michael O’Neill too, the future Northern Ireland player and manager signed by English top flight side Newcastle United at the age of 18.
Given the sporting talent in his family – and his late mother Patricia was “a good tennis player, a good golfer as well” – it’s not at all surprising that Michael also went on to great things.
Perhaps the only surprise is that it wasn’t in the GAA.
‘Mickey’, as he was known then, was good at that, of course, picked for Antrim Minors and on the All Saints, Ballymena senior side before crossing the Irish Sea to England 31 years ago.
“I always enjoyed playing Gaelic football,” he recalls. “From a young age I played up an age group or two, which toughens you up certainly.”
However, he admits: “It was never my first love, my first love was always soccer…
“I used to get reprimanded sometimes at Coleraine for playing Gaelic football, but my memories are all good. A lot of the lads I played with I still remain friends with to this day.”
There was never any pressure from dad Dessie for young Michael to steer clear of soccer and play GAA, though:
“Not really. Maybe more so on my older brother Sean, who was an athlete. Sean ran in the Commonwealth Games and he played a bit of hurling because he probably felt that my dad wanted him to play it.
“Dad never put any pressure on us in terms of what sport we chose to play – he just wanted us to play sport, all of us, my sisters as well, whether it was golf, GAA, or football, as long as we were doing sport that was the main thing – and, obviously, when we were doing it, to try and do as well as we could.
“We’ve always had sport in the family, and my brother represented Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane  at a very young age, he was still in school, he was in Upper Sixth. I suppose that motivates you and spurs you on to want to do well in sport.”
Dad's hurling ability
Born in 1969, in Portadown, Michael was the son of a father in his late 30s, but even then Dessie’s ability remained clear:
“I only really saw my dad play hurling right at the end [of his career] when we moved to Ballymena. They coaxed him out of retirement, I think, to play in goals for All Saints. But I never saw him playing county hurling or for Ulster.
“You could see that he could still puc the ball almost the length of the pitch. There’s a very strong GAA background with my dad. I never really played hurling, I played Gaelic football – I wasn’t brave enough to play hurling.”
That’s not entirely true: “My hurling career, I played a little bit in St Louis’, but I never played club, despite people thinking that I would play hurling because my dad had played.
“It was always football [soccer] that came first for me and, to be fair to my dad, he didn’t try to make me play GAA ahead of playing soccer, it was always soccer, and he always supported me in that. He didn’t push me.
“I don’t think he played Gaelic football, just hurling at St Gall’s from such a young age. He still has loads of pictures in the house of him playing for Belfast Schools, all that kind of stuff. His life seemed to be hurling.”
And what a life. In fact Dessie did play a little football for St Gall’s, at midfield, but he was mainly a hurler – for 16 seasons with the Antrim seniors from 1951 to 1966, having made his National Hurling League debut as a 17-year-old and appeared for Ulster (alongside Kevin Armstrong, among others) at the age of 18. Later, when living in Portadown, Armagh persuaded him to play League hurling.
All Saints memories
Michael – Mickey – played more Gaelic football than hurling, and played it well, leading to “good memories. We had a successful team in St Louis’, we won the Loch an Iuir Cup, in my second year at St Louis’ grammar school.
“I always played Gaelic throughout the school, and I played with All Saints, Ballymena. It’s amazing to see where that club has come to now. We used to play on an old pitch that had a terrible slope on it, and tin hut to change in.
“Now they have maybe three pitches, an artificial surface, and a clubhouse. The people have done an amazing job there and it’s great to see the club flourish the way it has.
“I always enjoyed playing Gaelic football, from a young age I played up an age group or two, which toughens you up certainly.
“I played left half-forward, sometimes left corner-forward. I played senior football for All Saints when I was 16 and I actually scored the goal that knocked St John’s out of the county championship when they were the reigning champions [in May 1987], at Rasharkin, so that’s a memory that is very positive for me.” That goal came in a 2-8 to 1-4 victory for All Saints, all the more astonishing as it was the club’s first foray into senior football.
Asked to describe himself as a [Gaelic] footballer, Michael says: “I was fast, I was skilful,” adding with a smile: “I had a tendency when the ball was on the ground just to keep it on the ground and not pick it up, which, again, people frowned upon at times.
“Gaelic was a game that came quite naturally to me, to be honest. I played in a number of half-forward or corner-forward positions, and I always enjoyed it.”
All Saints was a young club then, battling to establish itself against unionist council opposition in Ballymena, but the talent in the town was evident, and Michael cites some club-mates as influences on him:
“Mainly the lads that were older than me who I played along with – the likes of Timmy Connolly, Barry McCann, Enda McAtamney, who went on to be county players as well.
“They were young players in the All Saints senior team, but they were big players as well. The likes of myself and John McCann were coming through at that point as well.
“It was a great introduction, because senior football is tough, and you’re coming into that at a young age. I was fortunate that there was number of people on that team who would have looked after me a little bit as well, which I needed.”
Talent has to be nurtured too, as well as protected, and O’Neill pays tribute to men who helped shape him:
“A lot of it is also due to teachers you have in school. John Sexton in St Louis’ was very driven, would have done anything to win, and that rubs off on you.
“Also, at primary school, a teacher called Shaun McLaughlin who recently passed away, I was at his funeral. Shaun was a brilliant teacher because he put the focus on representing your school.”
Michael and his mates did that in some style: “I was part of All Saints Primary School [team], we won the old Belfast Telegraph Cup [in 1980], which, in primary school, was the equivalent of winning the Champions League, it was brilliant.
“I actually played in the final against St Oliver Plunkett, Jim Magilton played for them in the same game.
“It was my first real taste of what it meant to win and to be part of a team, and how significant it was to win. Those kind of teachers are a dying breed, I think. I got a lot of that type of thing in my character from people like that.”
So All Saints PS developed his soccer bug, which had bitten him as a boy:
“Argentina ’78 is my first memory of a World Cup. I just was always into football. It was the only thing I ever had, the only thing I asked for was a soccer ball. It was the only thing I ever did, my mum would have said.
“I was always organising games – maybe that was the manager within me even then. In the estate, I just always played football.
“Then once you go and become part of an organised team you get a real taste for it. My boys’ club football was Star United in Ballymena, we had a very successful team.”
His ability was soon spotted by some well-connected neighbours. “I was fortunate that I had good people around me. Alec McKee, who was previously manager at Ballymena [United] used to live round the corner from me.
“He brought me to Chimney Corner [FC] as a 14-year-old and I used to train with older players from a very young age; that’s something I think we don’t do enough of with young players now.
Bertie Peacock's influence
“At that time Chimney Corner were in the ‘B’ Division and Alec didn’t think it was right to try to integrate a 14-, 15-year-old into his first team. He thought I should go to Coleraine and play in their reserves, in that side of the ‘B’ Division, as it was at that time.
“Jim Platt and Bertie Peacock brought me to Coleraine, then it was just a general progression: I played in the first team at Coleraine when I was only 15 and from there it progressed, so that I played a bit more each season until the point where I’d just turned 18 and I was a regular in the team.”
Platt had been NI understudy to the great Pat Jennings for years, while Peacock was a former NI player and manager, and a Celtic legend to boot.
Peacock had managed Coleraine to the Irish League title in 1974 and was still involved with his hometown club: “Bertie was brilliant, he’d come every night. Jim Platt lived in Ballymena, so I used to travel with Jim.
“Bertie would always come on a Thursday night and talk to Jim about the team, and I’d be left on my own in the dressing room, just sitting there. Bertie would always bring me into the office, ask me how I was doing, tell me ‘You’ll be fine’.
“I was quite impatient as a young player, I used to get frustrated that I wasn’t in the first team, but Bertie would always have a chat with me and say ‘Don’t worry, time is on your side, you’re doing great, I watched the game’.
“He’d always come and watch the reserves at the Coleraine Showgrounds if the first team were away from home. You always knew he was there. A great man, and a man that always had a lot of time for you.
“When you came across Bertie Peacock you understood why he was held in such esteem at Celtic as well. He was a big influence on me.”
The Coleraine Showgrounds was an excellent learning zone: “Coleraine was a great club. At that time Derry City weren’t in existence, so we had a big pool of players from Derry as well, players from Belfast like Marty Tabb and Paul McGurnaghan, Eddie Curley was the scout in Belfast.
“It was a really competitive Coleraine team – I think in the four years I was at Coleraine, three times they finished second in the League. They won a couple of cups as well.
“It was great as a young player to be in that environment. I look at young players now and sometimes think they’re still playing U15, U16 football; I was in men’s football from quite a young age and I do think that was a big part in helping me develop the way I did.
“Felix Healy was in that squad, I remember Raymond McCoy going away to play for Northern Ireland, there were just so many good players at Coleraine at that time.
I loved it. I’d go down on the train to the Showgrounds when I was playing with the reserves and training with the first team.
“The start of it [for me] was when Derry City came back into football [in 1985], some of the Derry players had gone back there [from Coleraine] and suddenly one or two opportunities opened up for young players like myself.”
The opportunities for young players, and the family traditions, in sport continue to this: “Erin, my oldest girl, plays for Hibernian in Edinburgh, and she’s a good hockey player as well. My younger girl [Olivia] is a good gymnast and plays a bit of soccer as well. They’re both fairly sporty.
“If they’d been over here in Northern Ireland they probably would have played a bit of GAA as well. My nieces and nephews play both soccer and GAA as well.”
With such talent in their genes, the O’Neills and their offspring may be making the sporting headlines for years to come.
* In the second part of their interview, Michael O’Neill tells Kenny Archer about finding and developing potential players for Northern Ireland. Click to read