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Michael O’Neill on rejecting Scotland, steering Northern Ireland new breed, Aberdeen link and Kevin Keegan Hibs interest

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At Dundee United, a transition of leadership was taking place about 35 years ago. At Tannadice Park, a younger, more aggressive, and more gifted group of football players were making some space for themselves at the expense of some older, more established stars.

People like Duncan Ferguson, Andy McLaren, and Ray McKinnon were making an appearance. They even gave themselves a moniker, the New Breed.

“More like a mixed breed” Michael O’Neill proposed once. He was eligible to join the gang because of his exceptional talent and relative youth (he signed for United at the age of 20). But because of his intense study habits (he was preparing for an A-Level in math when he came), his peers first treated him with some mistrust. However, he went along with them to try Jim McLean’s fickle tolerance, the irascible manager even benching O’Neill for a while when he refused to sign a new deal.

Michael O'Neill in action for Dundee Utd in 1993.
Michael O’Neill in action for Dundee Utd in 1993.
Consequently, it’s amusing to observe that O’Neill is currently playing the part of McLean, leading a new generation of young players. In his second stint managing Northern Ireland’s national team, his prospects have improved dramatically thanks to a combination of luck and strategy (the Irish FA’s JD Academy, a full-time residential academy, is now paying off). Players like Rangers winger Ross McCausland and Liverpool’s Conor Bradley are leading the way.

On Tuesday, Scotland will play this “new” Northern Ireland at Hampden. Please pray for Tommy Wright, the manager of Northern Ireland’s Under-21 team, as O’Neill has selected all of his top players, including Bradley, a 20-year-old full-back for Liverpool.

Speaking this week in an Edinburgh café, O’Neill remarked, “I saw him last year on loan at Bolton.” “He was excellent, but keep in mind that you are observing a League One player. You honestly don’t think he’ll be playing in the season-ending matchup with Manchester City the next year.

“Obviously, there is Trent Alexander-Arnold’s injury situation; that is somewhat of a concern. However, I believe he has performed incredibly well at Liverpool since joining; he has seemed at ease. He seems to belong there, and Liverpool vs. Manchester City is arguably the best match of the year, on par with the Champions League final.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill turned down the chance to manage Scotland in 2018. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill turned down the chance to manage Scotland in 2018. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Regarding McCausland, O’Neill remembers witnessing him score for Rangers B at Spartans and saying, “It’s obvious the manager (Philippe Clement) believes in him because he plays a lot.” Additionally, he finishes a lot of games, which is unusual for a wide player because these days, they are the ones who play 70-20 most of the time. He may not have been in on the game-winning assist pass, but he has been involved in many of the action in Rangers goals. Rangers are dealing with a legitimate player.”

In contrast to the Tannadice golden generation, Bradley and McCausland don’t seem to be the kind of players whose actions would cause O’Neill to have nightmares. With recent rumors tying the 54-year-old to Aberdeen, it may be one of the reasons he feels prepared to withstand any overtures from teams looking to convince him to give up international playing for a second time.

As a player, O’Neill was prone to constantly searching for the next opportunity. However, he claims that he has learnt to concentrate on the work he is currently doing.

Never mind that in 1998 he spent a few games on loan at Aberdeen. O’Neill might have been in the home dugout on Tuesday instead of Steve Clarke if he had signed on the dotted line in 2018, as the SFA wanted him to do after splitting with Gordon Strachan.

Michael O'Neill has taken charge of Northern Ireland for a second time but remains open to a return to club football. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

After O’Neill declined the chance, Alex McLeish took over for a second stint as manager, and Clarke joined 14 months later.

“I had been an international manager for six years at that point,” recalls O’Neill. “I had quite a few jobs associated with me. I was probably beginning to consider those opportunities at that time. We had suffered a very unfair defeat against Switzerland in a World Cup play-off match.

“I spoke with Steven Davis in particular for a long time about it, and he confirmed to me what the players believed. Furthermore, I was free to leave by signing a new contract with Northern Ireland, something I was unable to do with Scotland.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to accept the position in Scotland and then leave for England a year later. Because Alex (McLeish) had done that, it was challenging for him to return a second time. That’s not what I wanted to do. It wasn’t as though the SFA offered enormous wealth to entice me to accept it. There was no issue and excellent chats because of the courteous approach.

“It goes without saying that the team was in a very different place. It’s likely that you were thinking, “This is going to take some time.”

He recalls being a player and constantly being in a rush, which makes sense considering how rapidly everything appeared to happen to him. He claims, “It started with a bang.” At the age of 18, he became the top goalscorer at Newcastle United after making his breakthrough.

He remembers, “At the time, Gazza had just left for Tottenham, and everyone was saying I was going to Liverpool and all these places.” “And two years later—no offense to Dundee United—you are a player for them. But you’re constantly asking yourself, “What’s the next step?” When I was at Hibs, I was on the verge of returning to Newcastle, which would have been my ideal situation. And at the last minute, they took another action. That was football’s character.”

In 1995, during O’Neill’s second season at Easter Road, Kevin Keegan made preliminary inquiries in an attempt to assemble a team that narrowly fell short of Manchester United in an unforgettable championship match.

O’Neill goes on, “You assume things are going to happen, sometimes they don’t.” “Decisions are made by you. I don’t really regret looking back.That must be involved, but not to the extent that it consumes my thoughts. I’m back and loving my work. For me, it goes much beyond just a profession because I have an impact on Northern Ireland football. We always strive to get better at everything. You are only the national team manager when you work for a country such as Scotland. The SFA is a larger organization with a better structure, a larger population, and a larger football nation.”

O’Neill is primarily situated in central Edinburgh, where his younger daughter Olivia is finishing up her education, but he travels frequently to watch English football. Many of his team play there, frequently at a lower level than he would prefer.

He states, “Even though I spent half of my career playing in the Premier League up here, I still follow a lot of Scottish football.” “I don’t need a player from Northern Ireland to be participating. There aren’t as many players up here as there once were.Now I’m sending Jimmy (Nicholl)! I also travel to England.

Since most of our Scottish-based players play for Kilmarnock and St. Mirren, Nicoll essentially owns a season ticket for those two teams. And now Ross McCausland is making a breakthrough. Jimmy likes Rangers, so he’ll use any reason to return!

Since those are the players on the periphery of our team, I watch a lot of football in League One. It offers you a wide foundation. I know a lot about English football, even down to League two, so if I ever wanted to manage a team again, I would definitely need to know.

Regarding the topic of club football, could O’Neill soon be getting back into regular play? Aberdeen is still looking for a new manager. O’Neill signed a massive five-and-a-half year term with the Irish FA in December 2022, so even if both sides wanted to do something, their contractual situation with the Irish FA would undoubtedly prove to be an immovable barrier, with the compensation package alone probably being a deal-breaker.

O’Neill is open-minded while noting that he might want a more all-encompassing job to that of manager should he ever return to the club game. He gained insight into the proper and improper operations of a club during a challenging stint at Stoke City.

He responds, “I wouldn’t ever rule it out.” “As I always say, focus on your current work. If a different opportunity arises, evaluate it and decide if it’s the proper time to pursue it or not. You have to be respectful to your existing employers and I always would be.

“Me coming to Stoke was financially advantageous for the IFA, they gained out of that quite a bit. They were highly compensated, which isn’t common in international football.”

He continues, “I would still like to work abroad at some point.” “I’m interested in playing different gaming roles. I’m not sure if managing people would be my next step in the career ladder. That may be a different kind of position. Off the field as much as on it, Stoke needed to accomplish a ton of work.

“I believe that everyone enjoys watching a football team operate effectively, and that presents a difficulty for the owners. I honestly believe that there is a dearth of football understanding in the boardroom at many football clubs. I play the game, thus I never watch it as a fan. Many individuals watch football from the perspective of a fan.

“I believe that supporters of a football team occasionally require defense against themselves! And my motives are pure when I say that. Being patient is the hardest part about football because fans are impatient. The issue is actually such that churn never works. Keep excellent employees in your organization.

Owners like Aberdeen’s Dave Cormack should be very sensitive to such statements. As things stand, the Irish FA are fortunate to reap the rewards of O’Neill’s insight twice. The current situation is very different from his legendary debut, in which he guided his nation to the round of 16 at Euro 2016. Convincing players to keep playing was the most difficult task.

He remembers, “The number of talks I had with boys in that group who wanted to retire.” “I even brought Aaron Hughes out of retirement, and he continued to play for an additional seven years!” This is not like that. A distinct bunch of players, a lot younger.

“It is thrilling,” he continues. “We were aware that we had talented younger players, but we didn’t anticipate using them as much as we have. Consider Shea Charles as an example. He was in Manchester City’s under-21 team when we played in March of last year, at the age of 19. He had not engaged in any first team football play. He transferred to Southampton for £10 million by the conclusion of the season, and that amount will increase.

The core of the current squad, which O’Neill blended into a team capable of something Scotland, who kick-off Euro 2024 against Germany, so desperately wish to emulate this summer, is under 24 years old, save Josh Magennis, George Saville, and Paddy McNair. This is in stark contrast to the core of the group that is under 24 years old.

Suggestions for Clarke, who happens to be good friends with Kevin “Crunchie” McAllister, a former winger for Chelsea, Hibs, and Falkirk?

“Looking back on the Euros, I probably didn’t realize how important the opening game was at the time,” admits O’Neill. “We had a lot of anxiety for the first game versus Poland. Steve’s team will include several players who have participated in the competition before, but in a modified capacity.

“The issue is that you are either in a really tough situation or you cannot lose the second game if you lose the first one. As we did, you can get by with three points, but you most likely need four. Our issue was that we had to play Germany, the world champions, in the last game after winning the first game against Ukraine. Although we only lost 1-0, we thought we needed a point, and Michael McGovern, the goalie, had an incredible performance. A few days ago, I watched him play for Livingston at the age of 39. It’s crazy!

This week, when he comes to Hampden, the scene of, well, now that you bring it up, not too many memorable events for him personally, O’Neill can discuss such ideas with Clarke.

The last time Northern Ireland played at the stadium, in 2015, they lost 1-0, with Christophe Berra scoring the winning goal. He was 14th man when Dundee United lost 4-3 to Motherwell in the thrilling 1991 Scottish Cup final.

“Jim McLean departed… “I don’t have a lot of happy memories,” he remarks. “Brechin is up against Queen’s Park, and those are probably the only decent ones!”

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