Professional football is a very fickle business if you’re a manager. One minute fans, players and chairmen alike see you as a God-like figure; the next, you’re a villain who should be banished from the world as quickly as possible. Nowadays, it seems as though even just losing one game can lead to the sack. Unless your name is Michael O’Neill.
It’s highly unlikely that the majority of you reading this will have heard that name before. Even I didn’t really know much about him, other than he manages the Northern Ireland football team, until the other day. The former Newcastle and Wigan midfielder was appointed manager of the national team in December 2011 in what some considered a surprise move after bigger names had been strongly linked with the job. However, O’Neill had been very successful at his previous side Shamrock Rovers, winning successive Irish league titles as well as leading the side out in the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.
The Green and White Army, a shadow of the side that graced the World Cups of 1982 and 1986, needed someone who had experienced recent success and O’Neill was just the perfect fit. The partnership didn’t start well though. In his first 18 games in charge, the side recorded just a single victory alongside 7 draws. Their attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup was feeble at best, with the team losing to both Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. They finished second from bottom in their group with just 7 points, which was a worse performance than their attempt to qualify for the 2012 Euros in a tougher group.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. The team put up two exceptional performances against a much stronger Portugal, claimed a very credible draw away to Israel and even beat Russia 1-0 in front of 11,000 delighted fans at Windsor Park. Not only this, but David Healy’s 96th minute equaliser against Azerbaijan showed just how hard the team were prepared to battle for the manager. This was further confirmed in their extremely gutsy performances against Uruguay and Chile, making their World Cup-bound opposition work very hard for their victories.
Despite all that, the stats didn’t make good reading going into their opening Euro 2016 qualifier away at Hungary last month. They hadn’t scored in four games and had lost six of their last eight. On top of that, they won an away game for in 18 matches and hadn’t beaten their opponents, ranked over 60 places above them in the world, in five previous attempts. Some were saying O’Neill was lucky to still be in charge. Finally, though, his team converted their performances into a victory as they recorded a 2-1 win thanks to late goals from Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty. They followed this up with a solid 2-0 win at home over the Faroe Islands on 11th October and then, three days later, pulled off a fantastic 3-0 away win against a Greece side who had only been knocked out of the World Cup on penalties just a few months earlier. Northern Ireland now top their group, something even the most optimistic fans couldn’t have imagined.
Before the three wins, O’Neill had only won 8% of his games in charge of Northern Ireland. In football nowadays, this is unheard of. If a manager’s win ratio is less than 50% they face being out of a job. Roberto di Matteo, who guided Chelsea to their first Champions League title in May 2012, lasted just five more months before being sacked. Even more recently, Scunthorpe United sacked their manager Russ Wilcox after winning just two of their eleven games in League 1 this season despite getting the team promoted last year, included an run of 28 games unbeaten at the start of his tenure. Unbelievably, most fans weren’t even disappointed to see him leave.
It’s no secret that loyalty is no longer a value in football. Cases of a player staying with a club for the entirety of their careers, or even more than five years, are now extremely rare and the managerial conveyor belt is getting shorter and shorter – most of them do well to stay in charge for a season and a half! Rather than being in the ownership of the fans, teams are now just businesses in a cut-throat society where malfunctioning parts can easily be replaced. Many fans themselves have been drawn into this and are very quick to turn on managers at the slightest sign of trouble. They have forgotten that football is only a game and that, whilst upsetting, losses are part-and-parcel of it.
On the basis of this, it’s amazing that O’Neill is still in charge. However, there are two reasons as to why he may not have been sacked: 1) he is manager of a national side run by a national governing body and not a greedy businessman and 2) his side aren’t expected to qualify for major tournaments. If he was in charge of an England or a Germany, O’Neill wouldn’t have lasted five games, let alone eighteen. However, Northern Ireland are a lowly-ranked side who often just make up the numbers during qualification and, as such, there isn’t as much pressure to get results. All the Irish FA realistically want to do at the moment is to develop players for the future and give tougher opposition a good fight – O’Neill proved he could do this and this must have been a key reason as to why he was kept as manager.
Will Northern Ireland qualify for Euro 2016? As much as I’d love to say yes, they still have to play Romania, Finland (both twice), Hungary and Greece – all of these sides are above them in the world rankings and will be desperate to qualify. It’s not beyond their reach though; if they can keep their momentum going then there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t qualify. As for O’Neill, he can be an example to both managers and owners across football – if you have just a little bit of patience and faith, anything can happen.