Though he comes off as a humble man, Michael O’Neill is busy making history. He’s the first manager to take his nation Northern Ireland to the European Championship, and he did it with fantastic style, with his team topping their group and finishing qualifications with a 6-3-1 record. That was quite a turnaround from the last campaign that managed only one win and a number of tough draws and losses. With the tournament now upon us and Northern Ireland already with a stunning win against Ukraine in France under their belts, O’Neill sat down with Rabona to discuss the team, the country, and their unlikely Euro 2016 journey.
RABONA: How did the Northern Ireland job come your way?
Michael O’Neill: I was running a club in Ireland, Shamrock Rovers. I had a lot of success there; I won two league titles. I was the first manager ever to take an Irish club—from either north or south—into the group stages of a European competition when we made the group stages of the Europa League. I suppose those were the things that brought me to the attention of the association. I had the opportunity to interview for the job, and I was successful. It was possibly something I thought might come later in my career. But the opportunity came much earlier, and I took it.
That success came during a period financial difficulties for Rovers. Do you seek out situations with limited resources? Is it something you actually like about the job?
MO’N: Possibly. The most important thing of any job is to make the best of what you have. You can be given lots of money and not spend it particularly well. That’s a different type of challenge. At the end of the day, the challenge came to me. I started out as a young manager with Brechin when Rovers came to me and said, essentially, “This club has a great history, but it’s going through some hard times, can you restore it?” I think I did do that in a very short time.
Talking about the limited resources available, part of your struggle with Northern Ireland is because some players choose to play for the Republic. You’ve talked before about how you don’t judge a player for choosing one way or the other, but do you feel it hinders your chances as the smaller of the two nations?
MO’N: Certainly it hinders us. Particularly, some of the players that made that choice would have found a place in our squad, if they had been available to us…but they’re not. I have no feelings towards them personally. They have the right to do that. The division based on the rule that’s applied. We have to make sure to try to make a real strong identity for Northern Ireland, so that players want to play for us. We have young players coming up who hopefully have a strong identity with Northern Ireland.
But if you could, if it was your choice, to get rid of that rule, would you?
MO’N: Of course! I think that any player born in Northern Ireland should only play for Northern Ireland. The bloodline should be the only thing that changes that. That’s the rule for all countries. I think that would be a fair rule if applied to every other situation.
You’ve talked before about how the team is a place where it doesn’t really matter, Catholic or Protestant. In the midst of the Euros, does the idea of that unity work into your thinking?
MO’N: Not really, to be honest. At the end of the day, we want everyone in Northern Ireland to get behind Northern Ireland. But as long as we have a performance that will make everyone proud of the team, all the other things that happen around us, they are things that are not related to my job. As I say, it’s a unique situation in that both [Irish] countries are in the tournament. I hope both countries do well in the tournament. I hope everyone, north and south, wants both teams to do well as well.
Turning to the qualifiers: before they began, you had only one win with the team. But as soon as the qualifiers began, it seems you just took off. What changed?
MO’N: I think in the previous campaign we had a lot near misses and a lot of results that were a little harsh on us. We had a lot of draws that we should have won, and we lost a lot when we should have drawn as well. There’s a very high line between success and failure, and unfortunately, we were caught out on the wrong side of that line. I think that, most importantly, we had to find a goalscorer, which we did in Kyle Lafferty. And we needed our best players to be healthy all the time. After that, we needed to make sure we had our best players on the pitch. And we managed to do that. In the last campaign, we didn’t manage to do that. But the biggest thing was to get confidence in the team and manage belief in the team, and we did that with the win in Hungary. And we followed it up with wins against Faroe Islands and Greece. The rest followed along from that. We started very strong and the players believed that they could qualify.
Was the Hungary game the moment you thought you could actually be going to the Euro? Or did you believe from the beginning?
MO’N: I believed it was possible. I believed we had a chance to go to the Euros, but we needed to find a way to get off to a good start. I think that was a massive game for us because a huge weight was lifted off the team, not just from the previous campaign but the campaign before that as well. They hadn’t come close to qualifying in a long, long time. So, I think that result was a big result.
You find yourselves in a group with world champions Germany. How are you feeling about your chances?
MO’N: I think that we’ve drawn the toughest, one of the toughest groups, I know that. The Republic of Ireland has drawn a difficult group as well. Part of me wishes we’d drawn a somewhat easier group than ours. But we have to believe we can qualify for the knockout in this tournament. We’re going to have to be at our very, very best to do that. Poland are a nice, strong side; Ukraine have a strong side. But we’ve competed with the likes of Hungary and Romania. We have to believe that’s possible. I certainly believe that’s possible.
Do you feel any pressure not to waste this chance?
MO’N: I think pressure comes from yourself. We have our own expectations, our own goals. I don’t think there’s pressure. I don’t think we’re getting a lot of pressure and expectations like the bigger nations will have. No, we can go and enjoy ourselves. Go and make sure we play as well as we can. But equally we’re just happy to be part of it.
How would you define a successful tournament personally?
MO’N: I’ll be looking for an Irish side to get to the Round of 16. Only eight teams go home in the first round of the tournament. We have to make sure we aren’t one of those eight countries. I think that the Round of 16 will have a few surprises. I think that there will be teams in there that people didn’t expect to make the knockout phase of the tournament. And we’ve believe we’re capable of doing that. But this is a new experience for me and all the players. None of us has been to the tournament before. There’s a huge sense of excitement. We don’t have anything to benchmark it against.
Does the team have the belief that you can make an impact at the tournament?
MO’N: I think so, yeah. You know, in the three games since qualification we’ve won two, drawn one, so we’ve continued our run of good results.