Local soccer coach Jonathan O'Neill back home with Vancouver Whitecaps
BELFAST man Jonathan O’Neill has travelled to Saskatchewan in Canada to carve out a coaching career in soccer – and is back home on a whirlwind five-game tour with his Vancouver Whitecaps Soccer Academy U17 team.
The 28-year-old Cliftonville Road man is making a name for himself on the other side of the world after accepting the prestigious post last March to coach and mentor the Whitecaps youth teams at their regional excellence centre.
O’Neill, who holds his Uefa B licence and IFA youth certificates in coaching as well as acquiring a post-graduate diploma in coaching while studying in England, is determined to make it to the very top in his chosen profession.
Football has been O’Neill’s “passion” since a six-year-old who was inspired by the philosophy of former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
Mentored by IFA coach Sean Paul Murray, O’Neill realised there weren’t many full-time posts at home and opted to move abroad to learn his trade.
“There aren’t many full-time positions for coaches back home and that was my passion,” explained O’Neill.
“This is what I wanted to do so I got my education and was coaching at various clubs – I was coaching Knockbreda’s U20s before I left home – and I knew my next move was out of the country to make a life out of coaching.
“I had a few options in different parts of the world – China and Qatar. I flew over to England to do an interview for a post in Vancouver White Caps. As part of the interview I did a coaching session and they called me back and they offered me this job.
“When I was offered this position I didn’t have a clue where Saskatchewen was, and I literally had one day to decide. It’s in the middle of Canada and right now it’s the coldest place on earth – it was -50 last week.”
O’Neill added: “Since I was a kid I wanted to be a Premier League manager. I want my pro licence and to work at a big club. That’s what I would really want. It wasn’t easy coming here and the role is challenging but it has helped me grow as a coach.”
Belfast and Derry will be decidedly tropical for his 19-man Whitecaps squad where they will play five games in 10 days against Football Management Company’s NI Academy team, Derry City, Sligo Rovers, Finn Harps before rounding off their tour against O’Neill’s local club Cliftonville.
The Whitecaps U17 squad train five days per week including two strength sessions. Due to the freezing conditions, they train indoors for eight months of the year.
The young Canadians will take in some of the local sights too including the Walls of Derry, the Belfast taxi tour and Giants Causeway.
“It’s to show where I’m from and a lot of the players have Irish heritage too. It’s a cultural and football experience. It’ll be interesting to see how they perform in the games.”
Asked what makes a good coach, O’Neill said: “There are some coaches who are tactically brilliant and know every intricacy of the game. You have others who are good trainers and they’ll put on great sessions.
"But, to me, I think a good coach is someone who can motivate players and make them want to go out on the pitch and win together. Someone who can light the fire in players and teams.”
The Vancouver Whitecaps hired the right man to co-ordinate their regional academy.