Next year, thanks to manager Michael O’Neill and his valiant squad’s efforts, Northern Ireland will compete in their first major tournament in 30 years, having qualified for Euro 2016 in some style.
Prior to that, as manager of Shamrock Rovers, O’Neill won successive League of Ireland titles and the Setanta Cup, and led the club to the group stages of the Europa League, further than any Irish team had ever progressed in a European club competition.
These are outstanding achievements for any manager, but then O’Neill believes in exceeding expectations. Sue McKellar finds out more.
Your route into management was an unusual one. Talk us through your early days.
While a professional player, I took my coaching licences but I also studied maths and statistics with the Open University and qualified with the Chartered Insurance Institution, and I embarked on a successful career in financial services. Aside from a little media work, football had all been left behind.
Then I heard that Mixu Paatelainen, then manager of Cowdenbeath, was without an assistant manager and I offered to lend him a hand. It was unpaid, but the experience of getting involved and learning the ropes at a club was reward enough for me. A friend then recommended me for the manager’s post at Brechin City and I threw myself into the role. I was still working for a financial services company at the time, and I’d start work there early several times a week so that I could leave early to take training.
However, I came to a juncture where I had to decide which career I was going to pursue. It was actually the crash in the financial services sector that gave me the push I needed to go into football management full time. That chance came when, out of the blue, League of Ireland side Shamrock Rovers approached me to be their manager.
You gained invaluable experience there, not least managing in Europe.
It was an entirely supporter-owned club, committee based with no benefactor and it had a great history in Irish football. They had struggled for many years and when I arrived their new stadium in Dublin was still just a shell. I could never have envisaged the success we would have in the next three years, winning successive League of Ireland titles, the Setanta Cup and qualification to the group stages of the Europa League.
I haven’t managed in the English leagues, which some might believe to be a shortfall in my experience, but in the Europa League I managed against eight European teams over 14 months, so it was fantastic experience, and something I highlighted when being interviewed for the Northern Ireland post. The kind of preparation you have to do for such a competition is very similar to what you would do for an international game.
How did you find the step up to international management?
I miss the day-to-day contact with the players, but I have more opportunity to get the big picture and to plan. I am a real planner, at least when it comes to my team. Of course, although you may have three months to prepare for the next game, until you get the players together before a match you don’t know exactly who you will have at your disposal.
Unlike the larger nations I rarely have the luxury of replacing injured players like for like, so if I lose a player I might have to play someone out of position or change the whole system of play to accommodate. Fortunately the players are very adaptable and there’s a real humility in our squad.
Their attitude will be as a result of the culture that you have created and their belief in you. How did you build that trust?
It was difficult, because despite really good preparation and never being outplayed we weren’t getting the end results we thought we deserved. I had to convince the players of all the positives from those matches and stimulate a winning mentality in the group. That wasn’t easy, especially as our stadium was being redeveloped. It meant we were only able to play two home friendlies in three and a half years, including some tough away matches against the likes of Holland, Uruguay and Chile.
However, we learnt a lot from that early disappointing run at the start of my tenure and the experience of playing those tough friendlies away from home in front of big crowds was especially important. When we played Uruguay away with nowhere near our strongest team, their head coach complimented us afterwards; after all, they only beat us 1-0 in Montevideo with 60,000 supporters cheering them on. Games like these helped to lay the foundations for what we were able to achieve during the recent European qualification group campaign, when we won three and drew one of our five away games.
You have fewer than 50 players in the four English leagues and the top two in Scotland, many of them in League One and League Two. How did you convince them they could compete at international level?
I made it clear that they were not just there to pick up caps; we all had to make the team more competitive and find a way to win. I broke down what we had to achieve to qualify and showed them it was a realistic goal. It was important to be very positive and give them facts that they could take real confidence from.
Here, I drew on the maths and statistics I studied at Open University, because I understand that statistics can be used to get your message across. I showed them our World Cup qualifying group with Portugal and Russia removed, then asked if they thought they could win that group of four and secure at least a play off. They believed they could. I then showed them how close we had come in all of our qualifying games to getting the points required to finish third in the group.
We explained to the players that we had 42 per cent possession in the group (the second lowest), yet we had the most attempts on target and were the top scorers. This reinforced the message that we are a good counter-attacking team. Providing facts like this is a great way to give players confidence in what you’re doing.
In the previous campaign we received the fewest number of free kicks of any of the 54 teams in Europe, so our opportunities from set pieces were limited. We knew we had to address this and this campaign we played smarter, won more free kicks and corners and over half of our goals came from first or second phase set pieces.
My senior players also play an important role as mentors to the newer squad members, encouraging them and giving them confidence. That can be invaluable. Take Michael McGovern, who was selected in goal against Romania, but who is used to playing in front of about 1,500 people. It means the world to him when our massively experienced goalkeeper, Roy Carroll, says good luck and works with him to help prepare.
You watch a lot of matches and I hear you’ve gone to great lengths to see games.
We drew Russia and Portugal in our last World Cup group, so during the Euro 2012 finals I decided to go and watch both teams play. The competition was being staged in Poland and Ukraine, so a friend and I took a budget flight to Krakow, hired a car and drove to the first game. Then we drove back to Krakow to catch some other games in the fan zone. The next match I wanted to see was in Ukraine, but when we got to the border we were told our hire car wasn’t insured to enter the country. We showed some initiative, hitched a ride on a German fan bus, then crossed the border post-match to collect the car and drove to Warsaw. It’s lovely when you get to sit in the director’s box, but there is also something nice about going to a game and just watching it with the fans.
Euro 2016 will be your first taste of tournament management. How will you approach the challenges – in particular, managing the players for some time away from home?
We’re fortunate in that many of our players are low maintenance, but have a high output. That’s something I look at very carefully when making my selections. The 11 players who don’t start the match need to be patient and accept that not everyone can be a star player, and it’s very important that you make them feel valued. After our match against Finland, when we had won the group, our captain, Steven Davis, made sure he thanked the players who hadn’t made the team. These kinds of things are very important. When you make your selection you have a good idea what your team is going to look like and what changes you’re likely to make in the game, but when you’re all together for that length of time, it’s important to pick the right players, from 16 to 22.
How confident are you about your chances next year?
Who’s to say that we can’t get out of the group? We’re not just going there to enjoy the experience; we’re going to try and get out the group. We’ll be back in that familiar scenario where we’re the underdogs in almost every game, but we like that. In fact, one of the most encouraging things about our qualification campaign was how well we dealt with the pressure when we were top of the group.
All of our experiences during qualification and the openness with which we have discussed and analysed them can only help us when we compete next year. Remember also that we finished top of our group, so we have gained some respect from the other sides. The players genuinely believe that, whoever they’re drawn against, we can get something out of this group. I think if we get four points we’ll be very unlucky to miss out and, once through to the knockout stages, that’s when the fun really starts.