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Manager Hunt: Reports claim Michael O’Neill ‘frontrunner’ for Sunderland job - what’s he like?

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill’s future is the subject of intense speculation. We’re just one of numerous suitors to be linked, but what would the Northern Irishman bring to Sunderland?

Northern Ireland v Switzerland - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-Off: First Leg Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Resident Daily Mail local journalist Craig Hope was among the first to break the news of Sunderland’s purported interest in Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, earlier this week claiming he ‘topped a three-man shortlist’.

However, yesterday in the Scottish Record, rumours abounded that the Scottish FA had made a formal approach to install the Portadown-native as Gordon Strachan’s successor, intensifying claims.

Numerous other reports have since followed outlining the tussle between Sunderland CEO Martin Bain and Scottish FA Chief Executive Stewart Regan, who will ‘battle it out’ in order to get their main target.

But what just could we expect if the reports are true and O’Neill does indeed become Sunderland manager?

Michael O’Neill is a former Northern Ireland international midfielder, who started off playing for his local club Coleraine before moving on to Newcastle United (I know, wait for it...) in 1987.

He finished as the top goalscorer at St James Park in the 1987-88 season, before under-performing the following year, resulting in the Magpies’ relegation into Division Two (told you to wait).

He then spent the rest of his playing days dotting around Scotland and the Football League - bar two seasons as a Premier League player at Coventry City from 1996-98 - and then later spent a few years in America and his native Northern Ireland with the Portland Timbers and Glentoran respectively.

Michael O''Neill
O’Neill in his playing days at Wigan Athletic

Following retirement in 2004, O’Neill sought out a career in financial services and took up a part-time role as assistant to a well-travelled manager in Scotland, Mixu Paatelainen. O’Neill likewise began his managerial career in Scotland at Second Division Brechin City, even winning Manager of the Month in December 2007 and October 2008.

It is his spells over in Ireland that has really brought O’Neill fame, however, both north and south of the border.

Before beginning his eponymous spell with the North’s national Team, O’Neill tested the waters by taking up the role of Shamrock Rovers manager. He led the hoops to a second-place finish in 2009, before, in 2010, winning their first League of Ireland title since 1994. Then, he won the Setanta Sports cup, which featured teams from both Northern and the Republic of Ireland, and made history with his Shamrock Rovers side being the first Irish team to ever reach the Champions League knockout stages. O’Neill led the Dublin-side to another league title in 2011 before leaving in December the same year.

O’Neill, then of Hibernian

He was granted the opportunity to manage his home nation within the month, and here he really shone.

The day he took over 28 December 2011, Northern Ireland sat fifth in the qualifying for Euro 2012 and 88th in the FIFA world rankings. On June 2012, O’Neill’s Norn Iron side had played two, lost two. A 3-0 loss at home to Norway was followed up by a 6-0 thumping at the hands of the Netherlands. Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup took a familiar road; one win in ten and fifth in a group of six - just a point ahead of group minnows Luxembourg. However, in the years following, he has led the side to their first championship finals in 30 years, defeated countries almost 30 times the size in both geographic area and population size and saw his side go as high as 20th in the world rankings.

This was an incredible achievement, one which would have been followed up just this week had it not been for a poor refereeing decision deciding their two-legged tie with Switzerland in the World Cup qualifying play-offs. But how has O’Neill achieved this?

He has always been his hardest critic, claiming in an interview with Graham Hunter, that he ‘underachieved as a player’. Michael Walker, the author of Green Shoots: Irish Football Histories has claimed he was a ‘boy wonder’ upon signing for Newcastle as an 18-year-old, but due to injury he never quite lived up to his early promise and, as aforementioned, he became a journeyman footballer.

Michael O’Neill with interviewer Graham Hunter

He was desperate for a manager to take him under his wing and re-kindle his early promise, mentioning to Hunter that he would have been more successful if he was only ‘better man-managed’. Playing under tyrants such as Jim McLean, his insatiable need for a mentor never materialised as a player, but this is the foundation behind his managerial style.

O’Neill himself became that manager he craved for but never could get.

Walker, in Green Shoots, claims:

O’Neill’s got that combination of tactical awareness but also human awareness. In part that might be because he perhaps didn’t experience it enough whenever he was a player.

The environment is hugely important. The players aren’t of Premier League calibre like a lot of other international teams. They have to make up for that by being a united force on the pitch and for that to happen they have to be united off the pitch.

He has gone out of his way to create that environment and make the players feel part of something. It’s not all about him. It’s about a collective. He’s rooted in common sense and rooted in reality.

O’Neill has taken ample time and patience to create candour and erudite atmosphere, designed to eke the best out of a relatively workmanlike, yet irrevocably determined group of players low on confidence.

Paul McGinley - a fellow Northern Irishman and Europe’s 2014 Ryder Cup captain - gave O’Neill some vital advice, a moment which signifies a dramatic up-turn in the side’s fortunes:

Get into their hearts before you get into their heads.

Euro 2016 - Northern Ireland Press Conference
O’Neill captivated the people of Northern Ireland.
Photo by Handout/UEFA via Getty Images

More than any other, this is exemplary of O’Neill’s tenure in charge of the GAWA (Green & White Army). Work-ethic is the pure reason why Northern Ireland has been so successful, and this has been implemented from the very top. O’Neill himself told Walker in Green Shoots:

Our team is our match-winner. Our work ethic is our match-winner. We don’t have an individual. Kyle [Lafferty] scored the goals in qualification but it was our team which got us to France.

This surely is music to any Sunderland fans ears. Oh, how we’d long to have a young, likeable side hearkening back to the Peter Reid days with a new, fresh look and with work ethic poised above any other.

Although we undoubtedly do need a unifying force, and to be brought together as a collective, I feel this may be the wrong approach for many of the Sunderland players currently at the club.

Some of them wouldn’t know work ethic even if it smacked them in the face, and O’Neill’s own approach may only be implemented once it is too late. He may just simply be too nice.

We need a manager who can be both a guiding light and a McLean-like tyrant. Furthermore, International sides don’t have to worry about relegation nor financial struggles, and his project may take too long.

The Northern Irish FA deserve every ounce of respect for not pulling the sack trigger on O’Neill and sticking with their man. However, we need immediate results, and O’Neill has never been able to provide that.

Even if the rumours are true and he does join the club, although he’s undoubtedly a very talented manager, he may well be a right man at a completely wrong time for Sunderland.

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