Northern Ireland's Legacy Under Michael O'Neill
With his side on the cusp of history, the international coach has laid the foundations for a bright footballing future far beyond Euro 2016
There have not been many occasions where the sports editors of media outlets have had to spend time deciding how best to divide up their coverage of the ongoing careers of four football managers from Northern Ireland.
A telephone call within an hour of Sunday's drawn Merseyside derby at Everton brought Brendan Rodgers' three year tenure at the helm of Liverpool Football Club to an end, with the Carnlough man heading out the door with a multi million pay off cheque in bis pocket.
The almost instant conjecture was theorizing that not only had former Borussia Dortmund coach, Jurgen Klopp, been seen in the arrivals lounge of John Lennon Airport, but that he was parked around the corner from Anfield, in a taxi, ready to drive up to the ground as soon as Rodgers had cleared his desk.
In Belfast, ongoing speculation about Warren Feeney's future at Linfield was confirmed in midweek when the board at Windsor Park reluctantly accepted his resignation. The 34-year old had decided to return to his family home in South Wales and to also take up the offer of a job at League Two basement club Newport County as John Sheridan's assistant.
In Dublin, Martin O'Neill was using all his skills of diplomacy to wish Jack Grealish well after the Aston Villa star pinned his international colours to England's mast. Aside from that there was the more pressing matter of preparing the Republic's squad for the arrival of world champions Germany, for the much anticipated Group D European qualifier.
Back in Belfast, Michael O'Neill has been doing his best to calm the expectations of Northern Ireland supporters. Requiring two points from the remaining two games - Greece at home followed by Finland away - to ensure a place in next year's European Championship finals in France, the Green and White Army’s legions have been poised and ready for ages to book their 2016 holidays.
'We’re in a great position,' said O’Neill after the recent 1-1 draw against Hungary. 'If you had offered us a four point gap over third place with two matches to go, of course, we’d have taken that.'
While they are not related by blood, both Michael and Martin O'Neill are renowned for their similar, thoughtful approaches to the game. Martin's graduation from a hugely successful playing career at club and international level – he captained Northern Ireland during the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain – into club management has enormously enhanced his reputation.
At 63, there is little sign that the Kilrea born coach has any wish to get off the football treadmill.
And so it is with Michael O'Neill, who at 46, has developed from player to club manager and now lies on the cusp of guiding Northern Ireland to its first major tournament finals since Mexico 1986.
'It's his attention to detail and preparation that sticks out,' says John O’Neill, another unrelated member of the O'Neill clan. Now an articulate summariser of the game with BBC Radio Ulster, this O’Neill was a gifted defender at Leicester City and Queens Park Rangers as well as a member of the '82 and '86 international squads that went to Spain and Mexico.
'Having covered matches for the last 15 years, there were times where I thought we could never achieve it again. We are so close to it now, it would be incredible and all down to Michael,' he adds.
'His style of man management and ability to get all the players to work for one another reminds me in many ways of how Billy Bingham managed us back in ’82 and 86.'
One of the main differences between then and now is that the Irish Football Association has taken a determined step to build on this present team’s achievements. Reaching the heights of Spain and Mexico three decades ago was regarded as reward in itself. However more recently the IFA has been developing its Let Them Play strategy which aims to connect the game from the top right down to grassroots level.
'And Michael is a big part of that,' says Michael Boyd, the IFA's football development director. 'While Jim Magilton has been leading the plan to get to all levels of the game, Michael’s support is invaluable – no matter how small or insignificant an initiative might seem to be.'
As is often the case, contractual wrangling could get in the way of tying O’Neill into a long term contract at the Association. While he would like a four year deal which would take his employment beyond qualification for the 2018 World Cup and into the next European Championships, the IFA is looking at a two year offer.
IFA president Jim Shaw, a long time supporter of O’Neill’s achievements with Northern Ireland recognises that the Association needs to do what is required to fend off interest from football clubs ready to sign a cheque for O’Neill’s services.
'We do not want to lose him at any stage and we will be dealing with Michael in the near future,' stated Shaw in a recent interview. John O'Neill added: 'Michael is creating a legacy for Northern Ireland football which is getting more and more people involved at all levels of the game and we need to hang on him'.
Speaking recently at the launch of the IFA's Let Them Play strategy for youth football, Michael O’Neill was recounting how the first few years of his time as Northern Ireland manager were less than memorable. A 3-2 defeat by Luxembourg had supporters wondering if he was up to the task.
'There were many times I’m sure that people might have wished that I had fallen in that big hole at the back of the West Stand,' he mused, referring to the structural damage that closed the stand in March 2015 during redevelopment of Windsor Park.
With work on the ground almost complete however all of that is in the past, and while he has not physically mixed any concrete or installed any of the new pylons, Michael O’Neill can be sure in the knowledge of his part in laying the structural foundations that offer the Association and its merry band of followers a positive future on football’s international stage.
Northern Ireland's decisive Euro 2016 qualifier against Greece kicks off live on Sky Sports 5 tonight at 7.45pm.