Michael O’Neill on how he inspired Northern Ireland to qualification
28 March 2016. In the new room where Michael O’Neill spoke an old image flickered on a wall. Windsor Park, Belfast – 113 years old – is undergoing reconstruction and refurbishment that will make it considerably more colourful than the place Jürgen Klinsmann once greeted with, “Ah, East Germany, 1983!”
Green, white and blue are the dominant shiny shades, but there is still space for black-and-white. It’s there in a photograph of Gerry Armstrong lashing a shot low past the Spanish goalkeeper Luis Arconada at the World Cup in 1982. Spain were the hosts, Northern Ireland were down to 10 men, the final score was 1-0. Those facts are part of why Armstrong’s is probably the most famous Northern Ireland goal ever.
It deserves to be in this room, as does another – David Healy belting the ball beyond England’s Paul Robinson in 2005 to inflict a 1-0 defeat on Sven-Göran Eriksson’s celebrity England team.
There are two more photographs and they fast forward to now. They bring us back to the man at the front behind the microphone, Michael O’Neill.
One is of Kyle Lafferty scoring against Finland on this ground in March 2015; the other is of Steven Davis doing the same against Greece five months later. These images have taken their place in Northern Irish football history.
Davis’s goals – he scored twice that euphoric night – confirmed that Northern Ireland, a pot-five team when the Euro 2016 draw was made, would qualify for the finals in France, a first ever European Championship appearance. Three days later, a 1-1 draw in Helsinki ensured Northern Ireland did not just qualify but won Group F.
Here in Windsor Park’s new press room, O’Neill was reflecting on his blossoming team’s latest piece of work, a 1-0 win over Slovenia that extended Northern Ireland’s unbeaten run to ten games. It was, and is, a record that eclipsed the nine-game run put together under Billy Bingham as 1985 became 1986 and Northern Ireland reached their second consecutive World Cup finals, in Brazil.
Gerry Armstrong played there, too, though with less dramatic impact than four years earlier in Spain.
Not only did Armstrong’s goal send a shockwave through Spain, the tournament had an unforeseen development back in Northern Ireland, at a time when the Troubles’ murder rate was roughly one every three days. There was one killing in the two and a half weeks separating the first and last Northern Irish games – 0-0 v Yugoslavia and 4-1 v France – and in a city with Belfast’s history there is always interest in the context beyond football.
It was again this night against Slovenia. The friendly coincided with the centenary of the Easter Rising. There was a state occasion in Dublin, while in Belfast a huge white sign was laid out on the Black Mountain which dominates the north-west of the city, clearly visible to the Northern Ireland fans making their way down Tates Avenue to Windsor Park.
“Honour Ireland’s Dead,” it said.
Inside the ground, the message was rather different. A banner declaring “When They Begin the McGinn”, hanging from the North Stand, honoured the Aberdeen winger Niall McGinn – and tipped a French hat towards Josephine Baker. There was a lightness of touch, mood, humour.
Later in the evening there would be a frisson of annoyance from a couple of Irish players who were asked about their political and cultural background, which they felt jarred with this mood. This occurred in the mixed zone where players and reporters gather post-game. The normal procedure is to ask about the match.
It was an interesting reaction, taking some back to the “whatever you say, say nothing” past of Seamus Heaney. It also said that this Northern Ireland squad, a collection of Catholics and Protestants, considers itself a mixed zone.
O’Neill mentioned “inclusivity” on his first day back in December 2011 when he succeeded Nigel Worthington, and he knows politics and culture remain issues in a city such as Belfast, which still has more than 40 ‘peace walls’ separating antagonistic streets. He also knows the power of camaraderie and has nurtured it. In the background, players born in the north are opting to join the Republic of Ireland.
O’Neill prefers to focus on football as an agent of change. He prefers to focus on football full stop.
Hence, from behind the mic, he concentrates on the new ten-game record and salutes those who have gone before: “There’s players that have gone ten games without a win and played in bad times.
“It’s nice for me, because Billy Bingham was the manager who gave me my debut at 18 years of age. He believed in me at a young age.
“I’ve tried to take that into management in terms of giving players opportunities.”
O’Neill’s reference to Bingham and the photos on the wall made for a then-and-now connection. As O’Neill said, it was Bingham who gave the teenage winger his first cap, in Athens against Greece in the same team as Mal Donaghy. Donaghy was the one sent off that Armstrong night in 82.
Athens was six years on – February 1988 – just three months after O’Neill had made his debut for Newcastle United as an 18 year old.
It was, as O’Neill tells The Blizzard, “Not long after I’d been playing for my school team. I played for the upper sixth at St. Louis’s that season. I was studying for my A-levels.”
Mathematics, computer science and geography were O’Neill’s subjects at grammar school in Ballymena; meanwhile he was playing Irish League football for Coleraine. He was literally a schoolboy footballer.
Even when he moved to Newcastle in October 1987, O’Neill attended school in Gosforth. On a Saturday he would be in the same team, the same dressing room, as Paul Gascoigne.
During that 82 World Cup – the first finals Northern Ireland had reached since Sweden in 1958 – O’Neill was 12.
“I do remember it,” he says, “and I remember that Spain game, sitting at home watching Gerry score, Mal getting sent off and Big Pat [Jennings] making save after save. There was Norman Whiteside – he was only about four years older than me and he was there. When we were 12, everybody wanted to be Norman.
“Consciously, and subconsciously, it must have had an inspirational effect.”
Then, and it must have seemed sudden, O’Neill was in Athens, about to make his Northern Ireland debut. One month later, winning his second cap, O’Neill had Whiteside alongside him – and Poland’s great Zbigniew Boniek against him. Even for a smart young man, the pace of change could have perplexed him.
“It wasn’t necessary for Bingham to do it,” O’Neill says, looking back. “There were still a lot of players around from 82 and 86, he didn’t need to push me through.
“He held a training camp at Lilleshall and I went down to it from Newcastle. He must have seen something he liked. Then we went to Greece.”
O’Neill won 12 caps in Northern Ireland’s next 12 games, but he was no Bingham pet. A major feature of O’Neill’s management today is his professional closeness to his players, his personal and emotional bonds. This is striking because O’Neill did not have that with Bingham or any of his many other club managers.
Now 46, O’Neill’s roaming 20-year playing career took him from Ireland to England to Scotland to the US – Portland Timbers – before ending at Ayr United in 2004. He won 31 Northern Ireland caps.
He used those A-levels to enter accountancy and settled in Edinburgh with his wife Bronagh, a primary school teacher. There were almost two years out of the game before O’Neill understood how much he missed it.
O’Neill tells the story: “I was working in finance and doing fine. My daughter was one and we were shopping in Edinburgh on a Saturday afternoon and all of a sudden I was just, like, ‘Gee, this isn’t right.’”
Any route back would do and he took it – assistant manager at Cowdenbeath alongside his old colleague Mixu Paatelainen. The pay was £25 per week, the players part-time.
When asked what an aspiring coach learns at such a club, O’Neill replies, “Dealing with players. Players can say to you, ‘I’m not coming to training.’ So you have to build something to make them come, create standards, togetherness – because it’s not their job.”
O’Neill completed his coaching badges and, independently, finished his Pro Licence in Lisbon with Sporting.
In 2006 he went to Brechin, north of Dundee, then back across the Irish Sea to Dublin in 2009, to manage Shamrock Rovers in the League of Ireland. Here people began to notice O’Neill’s capabilities as he took a gang of players on 42-week contracts into the group stage of the Europa League. Then, in 2011, came Northern Ireland.
Along the way O’Neill has known a lot of managers and coaches but when asked about managerial mentors, his reply is always in the negative. “Mentors are people you speak to regularly,” he says. “I just don’t do that. It’s not for any reason. I just don’t.
“With Billy Bingham, what I’d say is that I always felt better playing under him than some others. He made you feel part of the environment, part of the team, part of it all.”
It is a prosaic comment, or could sound like it, but in terms of O’Neill’s Northern Ireland team and its rise from losing 3-2 in Luxembourg in September 2013 to qualifying for the European Championships in October 2015, it is instructive.
The conversation veers off to Jim McLean and Dundee United. Newcastle had paid Coleraine £100,000 for the teenager in 1987, beating off Dundee United in the process. Two years later Dundee United were still interested and broke their transfer record to bring O’Neill to Scotland for £350,000.
The formidable McLean was the manager. His team had lost the 1987 Uefa Cup final; English clubs were banned from Europe. O’Neill found an environment he respected: “Dundee United, in 1990, had an athletics coach, a strength-and-conditioning coach, the players all had to eat together at the stadium, the young strikers would be brought back in the afternoon for extra training. Newcastle didn’t have any of that.
“When I then went to Hibs, Alec Miller had a sports psychologist. There was sports science, we were getting our bloods done. Then when I was with Gordon Strachan [at Coventry City] I found him to be a modern version of McLean and Miller. I always thought the Scottish managers were better prepared at clubs that were better run.
“McLean in particular was the archetypal Scottish manager, and he could make it quite a tough environment. But it was also an enjoyable environment. That would have to mould you in some way.”
It would appear so. What O’Neill discovered as Northern Ireland manager was that there had to be convincing attention to detail, but also happiness; there had to be discipline, but also warmth.
“At international level the mood has to be good, particularly for small countries,” he says. “If it isn’t, you can’t achieve anything.”
Conor Washington, called up by O’Neill to play against Wales and Slovenia in March’s friendlies, having not participated in qualifying, noticed the group atmosphere.
“There are no egos,” Washington said. “The boys are so welcoming. They have made it easy to fit in, both with the style of play and behind the scenes.
“I think that is shown in performances. Everyone is fighting for each other. The set-up does have a club feel.”
Four years ago Washington was a postman. His climb from non-League to Peterborough United and onto QPR and international football has been fast and could have been distracting.
Before Washington’s call-up, O’Neill had to check. Not all managers do. He wanted to know about the characters of Washington and another he was bringing in, Peterborough’s Michael Smith. This was not about ability, this was about protecting the environment.
“I sent one of our coaches, Andy Cousins, to meet Conor and Michael Smith,” O’Neill explains.
“We’ve got to be careful. We’d been watching Conor for over a year before he went to QPR, but that’s just one aspect. We need to know what a player is like - if he is high maintenance, for example. Does he spend a lot of time with the medical team? We need to know.”
Cousins reported back, but that was only the first interview. “Then I went to meet them,” O’Neill says. “I thought straight away: ‘This’ll be OK.’”
Only then came the call-ups and the settling in at the team hotel on the shore of Belfast Lough. It’s the same hotel Germany used for a week before going to England for Euro 96, which is why Klinsmann knows Windsor Park.
To go to the hotel is to be struck by the low-key approachability of players as they mingle with guests, wives and children often in evidence. It is an upgrade from the previous hotel used by the Irish Football Association.
O’Neill’s management is rooted in common sense. He is not a manager who will quote some American baseball coach from the 1970s or use the jargon of “marginal gains”.
The latter, though, is what Northern Ireland’s progress is based on and getting the squad a better hotel is part of that. O’Neill has done what he can to ensure turning up for Northern Ireland is not a chore. As a former player, he knows this was sometimes the case.
Creating an environment in which players can come together to prosper is not as easy as it sounds, particularly when the personnel are largely the same as before, when players knew a dragging, losing culture.
When O’Neill succeeded Worthington, the Euro 2012 qualifiers had just finished with a 3-0 defeat in Italy. This left the Irish fifth of six in the group. Played 10, won 2.
It was a flattening ending because Northern Ireland had begun promisingly. The first game – away in Slovenia – was won 1-0 and the second – at home to Italy – was drawn 0-0.
Yet by the time of the return match in Pescara in October 2011, there had been a damaging 4-1 loss in Estonia. The Italy result made it four consecutive defeats. Nigel waved goodbye, Michael said hello.
He was immediately faced with the prospect of several senior players retiring. Had he young replacements, O’Neill might have accepted that, but he hadn’t.
“Instead of replacing them, I got those players in and told them they had to drive it, the culture and attitude. They needed their own motivation too. If you are continually turning up and getting spanked and your club manager is telling you that it’s time to pack it in, then it’s hard. Chris Brunt hadn’t played in a winning Northern Irish team for four years. Jonny Evans hadn’t for two years. I wanted them to see that themselves. It was a risk, because it might have demoralised them.”
A 3-0 home defeat against Norway in O’Neill’s first match in charge gave him an inkling of what he had taken on and when Northern Ireland lost 6-0 to the Netherlands in O’Neill’s second game, the losing sequence was six in a row.
A 3-3 home draw in a friendly with Finland arrested that run but the losing resumed once World Cup 2014 qualifying began. There was no disgrace in a 2-0 loss in Russia in September 2012 but four days later there was no thrill in a 1-1 draw in Belfast against Luxembourg.
A glimpse of O’Neill’s preparation and organisation was on view in the next match – a 1-1 draw in Portugal in which Northern Ireland were the better side, and led – but when a 90th minute equaliser from 33 year-old David Healy was required against Azerbaijan in the following home game, O’Neill realised he was in for a grind.
On it went, losing at home to Israel and to Portugal, on a night when Brunt and Lafferty were both sent off, and then, worst of all, that 3-2 defeat in Luxembourg on 10 September 2013 that was as embarrassing and as it was worrying.
The IFA is not a rich association. Fans travel on planes chartered for the team. They were on the flight home and O’Neill felt their anger. He has described this period as “like self-harm”.
Luxembourg was a landmark loss, but it did not re-direct the team. Losing continued, so that when Northern Ireland lined up for their first Euro 2016 qualifier, in Hungary in September 2014, they had won only one of their previous 22 matches.
Then came Budapest. Trailing 1-0 to Hungary and into the last ten minutes, yet another defeat loomed.
“So it’s same old Northern Ireland, just another unlucky 1-0 defeat like all the others,” says O’Neill.
But it wasn’t, because this is the moment Niall McGinn began the begin. Equalising in the 82nd minute via a pass from Lafferty, McGinn delivered the ball from which Lafferty scored the 88th-minute winner.
From landmark loss to landmark victory – this did change Northern Ireland’s direction.
O’Neill immediately understood. “Suddenly it’s different. We are rolling and psychologically it’s huge. That hadn’t happened to these players for a long time.”
It was Northern Ireland’s first away win in four years and in the post-match press conference O’Neill said of Lafferty: “We need a big campaign from Kyle now.”
There are many strands to this green story and Kyle Lafferty is most certainly one of them.
Lafferty was born and raised in Kesh, Co. Fermanagh, a rural town closer to Donegal on Ireland’s west coast than to Windsor Park in Belfast. A natural runner, he was a County cross-country champion as a schoolboy and a footballer who attracted Burnley’s attention as a 16 year old.
One month before his 18th birthday, Lafferty made his Burnley debut in the Championship. He was 6ft 3in, a target man, raw but with a clean touch and rangy pace. There was some noise about him.
Burnley was a start and after three years, 90 appearances and ten goals, he departed for Rangers, the team he supported as a youth.
At Ibrox Lafferty scored around one every three games and made headlines, good and bad. When Rangers went into financial meltdown in 2012, he left for Sion in Switzerland, then Palermo in Serie B. These were unusual destinations and Lafferty was acquiring a reputation. Thus, even after a successful season with Palermo, he was on his way again, the club president stating memorably that Lafferty was “an unruly Irishman”, an “out-of-control womaniser”.
His form at Palermo led to a move to Norwich City last season when they were in the Championship. It did not work; six months and one goal later, shortly after Alex Neil arrived as manager, Lafferty was on loan at Rizespor in Turkey.
Across Europe people were examining his contributions with furrowed brows. Because while Lafferty’s club career meandered, his international record was moving with sure-footed speed. That late winner in Hungary started something.
Actually, Michael O’Neill started something.
When Lafferty and Brunt were sent off against Portugal that night in 2013, O’Neill’s frustration was amplified by two facts: Northern Ireland were leading 2-1 when Brunt was dismissed and Lafferty was a 67th minute substitute.
Lafferty lasted 13 minutes, by which time Cristiano Ronaldo had made it 3-2 to Portugal. It ended 4-2 and four days later, winded and wounded, this Irish team lost that match in Luxembourg. “We had nothing left in the tank,” says Gareth McAuley.
Some 18 months later, upstairs in the team hotel, a softly-spoken Lafferty explained what happened.
“He [O’Neill] sat me down the day after I was sent off against Portugal.
“It’s difficult when you think you’ve got a good relationship with someone and a guy you respect is saying things that hurt you. But when I went away and had a think about it, I knew he was right.
“He then gave me another chance. A lot of managers wouldn’t have done that. He sat me down and talked to me like an adult. The things he said, he actually made me believe the lads need me in the team. He made me wake up. Had it not been for the sending off against Portugal I don’t know if I would be in this position now, helping the team.
“I had to grow up sometime. The team and the country needs the Kyle Lafferty with the head screwed on, not the clown. The transformation is down to Michael.”
The transformation Lafferty talked about is this: in the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, Lafferty had more red cards – one – than goals; in the Euro 2016 qualifiers he scored seven in nine and picked up just two yellow cards.
Because of the change, O’Neill has been asked often about Lafferty. His side of it is: “Kyle came to the fore. He wasn’t focused enough. He never played poorly but he only played four times in that [World Cup] campaign because of suspension. I had him in and showed him his career in numbers. His goal record was really good but his discipline was horrendous – 44 bookings.
“I told him he was substituted in 65% of his club games. So I had to get him to ask himself why. I told him I didn’t dislike him and that if I was in the dressing room I would be friends with him. But he was so important to us. I had to make him realise the need to change.”
O’Neill is no prude. This is someone who shared digs with Duncan Ferguson at Dundee United. But his analysis of Lafferty reveals his understanding of numbers and his intelligence, which is streetwise as well as academic. O’Neill’s thoroughness of preparation means that each player – via video clips – knows his direct opponent. He is surprised when he hears of coaches who do not tailor training to combat the opposition.
Lafferty’s diligent response has surprised many. While he has been unable to get a game in the Premier League at Norwich and ended the season on loan at Birmingham City, he followed his winner against Hungary with a goal against the Faroe Islands in the next qualifier.
Northern Ireland won 2-0 and the victory held a significance within the squad that was not felt outside it.
“Home to the Faroes, it’s the kind of game we don’t win,” said McAuley.
But they won this one and, crucially, as McAuley explained, it was a comfortable win with just one booking. Three days later, ten of the same starting XI went to Greece and won 2-0. Again Lafferty scored. The Irish had plenty in the tank. The schedule had mattered.
One month later Greece sacked their manager, Claudio Ranieri. Self-deprecating, even in casual conversation O’Neill speaks of the job Ranieri is doing at Leicester City, not what Northern Ireland did to Greece. He sees parallels between his Irish side and Leicester – and Atlético Madrid. “They win without having the ball. It’s something I hammer into my players all the time.”
There was a hiccup in Romania in the fourth game, a 2-0 defeat, but that would be the only loss in qualification.
A 2-0 win over Finland came next – two goals from Lafferty. Mixu Paatelainen, O’Neill’s old friend from Dundee United and Cowdenbeath, was Finland manager, until he was sacked a month after this result.
It was the first-ever Northern Ireland home game played on a Sunday and outside Windsor Park there were leaflets on Olympia Drive warning of “Satan”. At 2-0, inside they were singing, “We’re supposed to be in church.”
Twelve points from five games encouraged the humour. Gradually a qualification tally was coming into view. A solid 0-0 draw with Romania was followed by a crucial double-header in September 2015: Faroes away, Hungary at home. Lafferty scored in Tórshavn to make it a 3-1 win, which set up Hungary in Belfast. This could be it.
It turned out to be one of those nights when the drama exceeded even the greatest expectation. Hungary had improved from their opening group defeat to Northern Ireland, they had three wins and two draws in the next five qualifiers and had not conceded a goal in the last four of them. They were coming and with 16 minutes left took the lead. It was the first Irish taste of jeopardy.
One of the most remarked-upon features of O’Neill’s squad is the calibre of the clubs the players come from. Here the Hamilton Academical goalkeeper Michael McGovern dropped the ball to allow Hungary to score. Seven minutes later, Chris Baird, the 33 year old then with Derby County, was sent off – he had received two yellow cards in the same Hungary attack.
While the crowd was enraged by this, O’Neill had a greater concern – Hungary scoring again. “We’d beaten Hungary 2-1, so if they won 2-0, we finished level on points and it came down to the head-to-head record, theirs would have been better,” O’Neill explains, still sounding anxious about it seven months on.
“It was about trying to get that information onto the pitch amid all the noise and the game going on. I’d not told the players this beforehand because I’d have been talking about losing the game. Our focus was on winning the game. It would be very difficult to give that information without sounding negative. But I knew.
“I knew that losing 1-0, we’d still have qualification in our own hands.”
Breathless, O’Neill re-organised. There were nine minutes left with ten men, plus injury-time.
“We went 3-4-2, then almost 3-2-4 by the end. Kyle stayed on, at 0-0 I was going to take him off. 0-0 wasn’t the worst result, if it had to be.”
Then the unassuming but always there Niall McGinn steadied himself at a corner three minutes into injury-time. A substitute, McGinn shot low and hard and Gábor Király could only parry; from four yards out, Lafferty was there to belt in the rebound.
Despair was replaced by jubilation. On the touchline O’Neill shed his restraint and ran onto the pitch, a spontaneous celebration that earned him the nickname “Pleaty” – à la David Pleat at Maine Road in 1983 – inside the camp over the next 24 hours.
It was the kind of late recovery goal Northern Ireland did not score, until now.
O’Neill returns to one of his original discussions with the squad.
“It all goes back to the World Cup group,” he says. “I showed them the scores at 80 minutes of our games and we were in every single game at that point. That told us something.”
It told O’Neill that Northern Ireland were closer to achieving something than the one win in 22 statistic suggested. But he needed his best players on the pitch.
“I looked at our discipline [in World Cup qualifying]. We had three red cards and 23 bookings, which was sixth worst in the world.
“And when I lose players I am bringing in replacements from League One. This time our discipline was the best in the group.”
The Baird red card was the first of the group for the reformed Irish. Lafferty also collected a yellow and so he missed the next game, at home to Greece. An example of O’Neill’s squad’s depth came via the man who would replace Lafferty – Kilmarnock’s Josh Magennis, who was once a Cardiff City goalkeeper and Aberdeen right-back. “It’s surreal,” Magennis repeated in the build-up to Greece.
And of course, Magennis scored. He got the second in a 3-1 victory that sent Northern Ireland – ‘Pot 5 Northern Ireland’ – to France.
At 3-0 up in that game, O’Neill broke a habit. The crowd asked him for recognition. And? “As soon as I stuck my thumb up, the Greeks scored. So that will never, ever happen again. It’s not in my make-up to be like that. The supporters were singing for me to give a wave. Personally, I hate that.”
It is a very Michael O’Neill statement. He has since signed a four-year contract extension, but with a compensation clause should clubs come calling.
Rooted in reality, he knows the scale of Northern Ireland’s achievement but he also knows that Poland, Ukraine and Germany – in that order – await in France. He knows that his players will not have the ball for long spells. And his players know.
O’Neill’s captain Steven Davis is on one of those photographs in the new Windsor Park press room. Davis, 31 and with 79 caps, has been a quietly galvanising presence throughout, one of a clutch of players who made eight, nine or ten appearances in qualifying, enabling O’Neill’s consistency of selection.
Davis is already talking about being “hard to beat” in France and this is a player who knows what that means: he played in Luxembourg.
“It is a hell of an achievement for this team,” Davis said of qualification. “We have come a long way in a relatively short space of time. From where we were at in the World Cup qualifiers to where we are now, it’s phenomenal.”