Michael O'Neill: manager achieving international soccer success ... despite having to deal with eligibility minefield
FINDERS are not necessarily keepers – but that can work two ways.
When Michael O’Neill was starting out on his soccer career in the Eighties, the pathway was pretty clear: “As you get better and get selected to play for district teams, go through that and get selected to play for Northern Ireland at schoolboy international level, your ambition just grows as you progress.”
Times have changed, though.
Discussion of the Northern Ireland boss’s own managerial style leads inevitable towards the elephant in the room, an issue that won’t be forgotten – international eligibility.
“The man-management of players is possibly more important at international level than at club level, because,” O’Neill laughs (perhaps a little bitterly), “you can change your players at club level, it’s not so easy to do that at international level.”
Yet changes of allegiance – from IFA to FAI and indeed vice versa – have caused, and continue to cause, controversy.
When he was unveiled as NI manager, he said, in reference to the different supporting allegiances on this island: "I'm not going to convert a Man United fan into a Liverpool fan overnight. That situation is down to the individual."
The same principle applies to players, but O’Neill elaborated on this in our recent conversation: “I don’t think it’s a case of changing a mind. I’ve never tried to really change… Every boy in Northern Ireland, regardless of where you come from, has the option to play for Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.
- Sporting talent runs deep in Michael O'Neill's family genes
- Defensive errors sink Northern Ireland in Bosnia and Herzegovina clash
“Some boys will want to play for Northern Ireland, some will want to play for the Republic of Ireland… I’ve never really disputed that.
“The thing I have said to players is ‘If you are going to make that decision, make it on a football basis as much as possible’.
“Where I’ve had grievances about it is at times when players have made a decision and it hasn’t really been, I don’t think, in their best interest, from a football point of view to do that.
“But at the end of the day, it’s the player’s choice.
“I’ve never disputed that, never disputed that with any of the players, and we’ve never criticised any of the players who have made that choice either.
“There’s no issue there from my point of view.
“I just don’t want to see potential young international careers ended because a player makes a decision at an age where I don’t think he’s mature enough to make that decision.
“Don’t just be blinded by ‘I want to play for the Republic of Ireland’ or ‘I want to play for Northern Ireland’ – and that applies to any player.
“Dominic Ball is a player I’m in contact with now who changed [from NI] to play for England. Dominic would like to come back and play for Northern Ireland – but he can’t.
“That’s my stance on it, it hasn’t changed since day one, despite what some people have said, it has never changed from day one.”
The IFA and O’Neill could possibly be caught in a Catch-22 scenario, accused of not doing enough to attract young nationalists to the NI set-up while also told they shouldn’t be putting pressure on anyone to throw in their lot with them.
However, O’Neill insists the complicated circumstances on this island are not a problem for him:
“I don’t think it’s an awkward scenario for us. We pick lads to play in our underage international teams from all over Northern Ireland, same as for Club NI.
“Their background is irrelevant to us, really. We look at him and go ‘Is he a good footballer? Is he good enough to be in Club NI?’
“We want those players to come out of Club NI and be part of our underage international teams.
“Some players at that age opt to play for the Republic of Ireland – that is their choice, that is their choice.
“We’re disappointed a little bit, because they’ve been part of our Club NI programme, but we understand that, we’re under no illusions.
“We’ve never put any pressure on players, I don’t think.
“I had a conversation with James McClean before he made the decision and said ‘Look, James, I would love you to play for Northern Ireland’.
“To be fair to James, he went away, thought about it, and came back and said ‘No’, he wanted to play for the Republic.
“That’s his decision – and if I see James McClean now I’ll openly have a conversation with him, you know.
“It’s never a pressurised situation at all, because the player has the right to make the decision.
“We do everything possible, I think, everything we can, for the young players in Northern Ireland, as an association.
“Club NI does an awful lot to bring young players to tournament – and the only criteria for whether you’re part of Club NI or not is ability.”
O’Neill rejects any criticism of his own efforts to bring in players born in England who qualify through parentage or grand-parentage (with recent additions including Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Jordan Jones, Jamal Lewis, and George Saville) and even those, such as Sean Scannell and Niall Keown, who have represented the Republic of Ireland at underage level:
“But that’s international football…it’s changing. The route to international football, whether it’s through citizenship or a bloodline, those things aren’t as open to us, we can’t make someone a citizen of Northern Ireland, so we need a bloodline.
“We’re not doing anything that any other international team is not doing.
“Some others in central Europe have maybe got a wider scale of options.
“I think of France’s 23-man World Cup squad, eight weren’t born in France. That tells you, a country the size of France, with resources they have, that tells you the way international football is going.
“We have a really tiny, limited number of players, so we have to enhance that by either developing players or finding players who are eligible and those are the two ways we try to do it.”
O’Neill’s job, of course, is to get good results, but protecting the ‘Club Northern Ireland’ ethos of the international group is a delicate balancing act.
“Part of that is people like Ollie Norwood, who was born in Burnley but has played for Northern Ireland since under-17,'' states O'Neill.
“The other side of that is people like George Saville, who came in and fits in right away and is a big part of things.
“Equally I always look at our team at the start of every game and it’s credit to us that we normally have eight to nine players who are born in Northern Ireland in our starting XI, and I think that’s a big positive.
“But you constantly have to improve your team, so if there are players out there who are eligible to play for you, then you have to integrate them.
“There are players, equally, who have been eligible, who have said ‘No, I don’t feel a strong tie to Northern Ireland’ and they haven’t taken that offer up.
“You just have to accept that, that’s fine. They’ve just opted not to play international football at this point in time and that’s it.
“We’re never going to have the biggest resource to pick from, so the strength is in unity of the group and the togetherness of the group as well.”
O’Neill concluded by stressing that the pathway he oversees is a protective one: “Our system is for everyone, it’s for everyone.
“The players that come into our underage system will get looked after, they’ll get developed – and every player that is in our system has a value, we need to keep producing players.
“We’ve been ranked as high as 20th in the world, above the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, yet we don’t have a professional league
“We don’t have the level of resource that the Republic of Ireland have either, so we need our young players to come through, and they should aspire to come through and play for Northern Ireland – because, trust me, they’ll be extremely valued if they do.”
Michael O'Neill on his own playing career:
SIGNED by Newcastle United at the age of 18 in 1987, by Coleraine native Willie McFaul, Michael O’Neill played much of his career in the English and Scottish top flights.
He won 31 international caps, scoring four goals – but he still has regrets:
Whilst I was studying to do my A-levels and potentially go to university, the only thought in my mind was ‘Could I be a professional footballer?’ Thankfully when Newcastle came and bought me from Coleraine, I got that opportunity. I was transferred across after we played Dundee United [in the 1987-88 Uefa Cup]
“It was tough to go at that age. I was studying ‘A’ Levels, trying to think about what college I’d go to – but always wanting the chance to be a footballer.
“The chance came, but I didn’t anticipate that three weeks later I’d be making my debut for Newcastle and ending up the season as the top goalscorer at the club [with 13 goals in 22 appearances].
“The English game has changed dramatically now. It would be very difficult for a player to come out of the Irish League and do that now, obviously because of the standard of the Premier League. It was massive to leave school and then suddenly three weeks later you’re playing in front of 30,000-odd in St James’ Park…
“But when you’re young you don’t think about that, you’re just excited. Everything in Newcastle was exciting, the size of the city, the love for football, what the football meant for the people of Newcastle, it was fantastic.
“I loved my time there, it was a bit of a shame that we got relegated and I left but it was a great start to my career, it really was.”
Dundee United got their man in 1989, but O’Neill had a difficult relationship with Tannadice boss Jim McClean:
“It wasn’t a step down, not then, no. English football was a bit in the doldrums: the clubs weren’t allowed in Europe [after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985], there was crowd trouble, there were a lot of issues in English football at that time. It was pre the Premier League.
“Dundee United was a club that was challenging. They’d been beaten in the Uefa Cup Final [in 1987, losing 2-1 on aggregate to IFK Gothenburg], beaten in the European Cup semi-finals a few years previous [1984, by AS Roma].
“They were a club that had tried to sign me from Coleraine as well. I just felt I needed that stability of a club where I was going to develop, because Newcastle was very much a bit of a soap opera, and it still is, that’s just the nature of a club like Newcastle.
“Sometimes you look back and think ‘Was it the right decision?’ - but at the time you just have to make the decision and go with it.”
Learning to manage:
“The one thing about playing for a lot of clubs, as I did, you get the chance to work under a lot of different managers, a lot of different coaches, and ultimately you’re shaped by that, the good and the bad. You think, ‘Well, I liked that', and things stick in your mind - and also things that you wouldn’t do.
“Jim McClean had a lot of plus points, but also a lot of negatives as well. Of all the clubs I played for, a lot of the standards that I have come from Dundee United, where there was a very strict regime and it was a very tough environment to be in – but it was a good environment for a young player to be in as well.
“Gordon Strachan [at Coventry City] was very good, he had a very infectious nature on the training pitch, so it was enjoyable to work under him. I always wish I’d got the chance to work under him when I was younger, because I think he’d have made me a better player.
“I’ve never had a mentor, no one that I pick the phone up to for any particular guidance or advice on anything. If I felt the need to do that I’m sure I would – but I think management is about coming to your own conclusions and being yourself.”
“Yeah, I think I under-achieved, pretty much as a player, I’ll be honest. Sometimes that was my fault, sometimes injury played a part.
“When I went back to the Premier League with Coventry I was denied that chance, really, because of injury and that’s frustrating.
“When you have the start I had to your career, people always think ‘What’s he going to be like?’ – but sometimes it doesn’t materialize like that. I always look at young players now and relate my own experiences, tell them ‘It won’t always be like this, you have to be prepared to fight through the negative times as well’.
“My disappointment is that I was capped very young, at 18, and I got my last cap at 27. I would have loved to have played more than 50 times for Northern Ireland. I was in a lot of squads”.