North Belfast coach Jonathon O’Neill aiming high as coaching App is launched

Jonathon O'Neill
Belfast man Jonathon O'Neill (left) has launched a coaching app on emotional intelligence for athletes

WHEN former Spurs and Norwich footballer Paul McVeigh asked up-and-coming young coach Jonathon O’Neill: ‘What do you know about emotional intelligence?’ it sent him on a journey of discovery and education.

But, first, who is Jonathon O’Neill and where does he come from?

He’s 33-years-old from the Cliftonville Road, blue-collar in his outlook and a young man willing to travel anywhere to coach “at the highest possible level”.

Inspired by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and mentored by the highly rated and much-travelled Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen, O’Neill has been a sponge ever since he discovered his passion for coaching.

“They say every coach is a failed footballer,” O’Neill smiles. “I’m not. I just love football. I love the idea of coaching. I went to Cliftonville matches with my dad and watched them win the league back in 1997/98. That’s where my love for the game stemmed from when I look back.”

What feels a lifetime ago now, the fully qualified O’Neill began coaching Knockbreda U20s before leaving the comfortable environs of home and has since worked with Vancouver Whitecaps [head coach of provincial academy centre], Burnley [international academy head coach], London TFC [head of player development] and is now settling in at Seattle Celtic as their assistant director of elite academy.

Seattle Celtic is one of the biggest youth football clubs on the west coast of America.

For O’Neill, his coaching education has become a life journey. When he was studying sports coaching in Preston, former Northern Ireland international and author of ‘The Stupid Footballer is Dead’, Paul McVeigh reached out to him.

The pair struck up a rapport and it was when McVeigh asked him what he knew about emotional intelligence that O’Neill began to delve deep into the vast realm of psychology, which resulted in him and two friends creating an App on the subject, officially launched on February 7.

“A friend of mine who I went to St Malachy’s College in Belfast with decided he wanted to start building Apps. And he asked me if I’d any ideas for an App and I said ‘Yes, I do’. So, we ended up founding the company HeadCoach - unlocking athletes’ potential [].

“I love learning. I’m very interested in human potential, human development and performance. How do we fulfill our potential and what that looks like? How do we become better? Obviously, football has become my passion.

Jonathan O'Neill is back home for a whirlwind tour of the north with his Vancouver Whitecaps U17 team
Jonathan O'Neill is back home for a whirlwind tour of the north with his Vancouver Whitecaps U17 team Jonathon O'Neill pictured during his time with Vancouver Whitecaps U17 team

“There are different ways I can hit this, but I don’t look at physical and mental as different – I look at your life performance and whatever is happening in your body, it’s all connected, whether it’s your thoughts, your emotions or your actions – they’re all integrated.

“The App delivers emotional intelligence strategies to athletes. What that means is, say, you go to a sports psychologist, or a performance coach and they’ll give you some strategies to build some confidence or to focus or to have resilience on the field when you’re in games.

“So, the App delivers all that. We also have a habit tracker in there that allows athletes to track and build their habits. Then there is the well-being and performance journal that allows players to reflect on their well-being and obviously the coaches do the same.”

O’Neill’s worked in Mongolia as Burnley’s international academy leader but when COVID hit there were job losses at all the top clubs and the Belfast man was one of many casualties.

But it has in no way dampened his love of coaching or him wanting to be the best version of himself wherever that takes him.

“I’m from the Cliftonville Road. I didn’t grow up in a rich family. I’m working-class with the same education everyone else has.

“If I’m going for a job, all those tools [of emotional intelligence] has stood to me in a great way if I’m going to interact with Premier League clubs or MLS clubs.

“One of the most important things for a coach is to regulate themselves. My emotions impact other people and other performances. If I can’t regulate myself, how can I regulate others? It helps off the field too. I’ve coached players one-to-one for a long time and we’ve seen great results with all the information and knowledge contained in the App.”

O’Neill revealed they’ve had “a lot of conversations with some big clubs” about adopting their App which anyone can download and purchase for “the price of a coffee per week”.

“My dream is to manage at the highest level I can. So I built this tool to help me coach. I made a decision that this was what I was going to do. Is it easy? No it’s terrifying but it gives me tools like confidence, resilience, tools and strategies to manage the journey in trying to meet your goals.”