New Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill Wants 'Inclusive' Squad
Listen to the new international manager's first press conference
The first weeks of any new year are usually a depressing time. The joy of Christmas is replaced with the realisation that the worst of winter has yet to come. Ahead of us lie grim, grey weeks which have to be endured before the brighter, warmer evenings return.
However, Northern Ireland football supporters who are suffering the post-Christmas blues will have something to look forward to as spring approaches. The green shoots of recovery could be on the way for the international side following the managerial appointment of Michael O’Neill in succession to Nigel Worthington.
At his first official press conference in the Irish Football Association’s Windsor Avenue headquarters, the 42 year old County Armagh man, who takes up his duties in February, gave the assembled media a sense of the challenge that lies ahead for him – and the team.
'The important thing is that I’ll bring an openness to the job and that I'm going to focus on making the national team fully inclusive for all players eligible for the international team,' said O'Neill.
And perhaps that is the biggest challenge ahead for the new manager as he tries to convince Catholic players from the nationalist community of the merits of wearing Northern Ireland’s shade of green. It remains a contentious issue following the defection of Darren Gibson, Marc Wilson, and others to the Republic of Ireland set-up.
'A lot of these lads have played their youth and representative football in Northern Ireland,' O'Neill added. 'It’s important that we look after them and that they see the benefit of having long and distinguished careers for Northern Ireland as opposed to the fringes of the Republic of Ireland international squad.'
Those sentiments are shared by some within the Irish Football Association who feel that while O’Neill’s appointment is based solely on meeting the criteria of the job specification, his cultural background may help to persuade players and supporters that the Association is genuine in its commitment to inclusiveness.
O’Neill has been around football for a long time. As an 18 year old, he was diverted away from Coleraine and a full time education to take up a professional career at Newcastle United. As his talents flourished on the field, he stuck with his accountancy studies too.
After several seasons at St James' Park, O’Neill sought new challenges at clubs like Coventry, Wigan, Aberdeen, Reading, Dundee United and Hibernian. His craft and poise even found a niche in North American football at Portland Timbers, who play in what is now the MLS.
33 international appearances capped a playing career that made the transition to part-time management easier. O’Neill first cut his teeth at Cowdenbeath and then took the reins at Brechin City in April 2006, while continuing to work in the financial markets in Scotland. At the end of 2008 Shamrock Rovers offered him the full-time role in Dublin.
Two League of Ireland titles in 2010 and 2011 proved that Rovers’ investment in O’Neill had been a shrewd one. His stock was raised even higher when he steered the club to a place in the group stages of the Europa League after knocking out Paritzan Belgrade.
Superior resources proved the ultimate difference in the end as their more wealthy opponents Tottenham Hotspur, Rubin Kazan and PAOK Salonica beat them. However, praise for O’Neill from Spurs manager Harry Redknapp on his team’s spirited displays was praise indeed.
And with that particular chapter in O’Neill's career completed, a new footballing opportunity appeared to show itself when Nigel Worthington resigned as national team manager. A disappointing European Championship campaign in which Northern Ireland managed only nine points from ten games left supporters in despair about who might lead the team out of the footballing wilderness.
'When the situation arose with Nigel and I knew that the vacancy was going to come up, I was in the last few months of my contract with Shamrock Rovers,' O’Neill explained to the press corp at the Irish FA. 'We had achieved a lot there, but I just felt that if the opportunity came up and I was fortunate enough to be offered it, the time was right for me to take up the challenge.'
Three candidates made it on to the short list for the job, and O’Neill was interviewed before the Christmas holidays along with close friends and ex-international team mates, Iain Dowie and Jim Magilton.
IFA president Jim Shaw and chief executive Patrick Nelson, and the other members of the interview panel felt that the new manager’s vision for the future left him head and shoulders above the other two. And, come February, that is where the hopes of the nation will squarely sit.
O’Neill's first game in charge is against Norway on February 29, before two more friendlies with Holland and Finland set the team up for a tough World Cup 2014 qualifying group, which includes Russia and Portugal.
'First of all we need to get back to winning games,' said O'Neill. 'That is the key to any international set-up. If you can have some success in the field, the passion and the positive mood from the media and everyone associated with international football comes through results.
'We don’t have the biggest depth of player pool available to us at the moment. It will be a big challenge to try and increase that player pool and it’s something that I will spend a lot of time on.'
Apart from working to convince players like Sunderland’s emerging star, James McLean, that they could have a subtantial senior international career north of the border, O’Neill has made it clear that other young players are going to be given the chance to fast track in to the senior side.
'This will give us as many options as possible because as we go through the qualifying campaign it is pretty evident that for a small nation, the double headers in particular are difficult when you don’t have the depth of player to call on. The squad will benefit as well from having fresh blood introduced.'
The recent transfer of Cliftonville’s uncapped striker, Rory Donnelly, to Swansea City throws up an intriguing prospect in the next few seasons if his raw talent steps up. And we await the outcome of the new manager's stated aim to try and persuade some experienced players out of retirement, as well as offering the olive branch to others who fell out of favour with the previous regime.
Realistically it may be easier to come home with points from Moscow and Lisbon than to get players to renounce their allegiances to the Republic, or indeed get Fulham's Aaron Hughes or Stephen Craigan of Motherwell to rejoin the international scene.
As a player O’Neill distinguished himself by his quiet, thoughtful approach to his football. In management he displays similar traits. Any gifts of diplomacy that he possesses will be put to the ultimate test dealing with the eligibility and early retirement issues as he aims to mix the old with the new.
'My job is to put a team on pitch that people want to come and watch. The IFA has done a great deal of work in making the games at Windsor Park inclusive for everyone in Northern Ireland. We want a team on the pitch which is inclusive of everyone.
'And then it’s down to an individual’s preference as to who they want to go and watch. If we can put an exciting team on the pitch – hopefully a young hungry team – people will relate to that and come out and support the team.'
O’Neill’s employers and supporters need to give him beyond his two year contract to let his vision for the future work its way through the system. It will take time, but when you are at the bottom, things can only improve. Patience can bring its rewards
The photograph above is courtesy of Gary Hancock.