It was news that everyone in Northern Ireland was expecting but it still came as a shock to many.
The man that changed the ‘Green and White Army’s’ fortunes has left his role as international manager, with his country so close to reaching a second consecutive European Championships.
Michael O’Neill took over as Northern Ireland manager in 2011 from Nigel Worthington. He was the manager of Shamrock Rovers at the time, having gotten the side Dublin to the group stages of the Europa League.
His first game in charge of Northern Ireland was a 3-0 defeat to Norway at Windsor Park. This result at the time didn’t boast much encouragement for the fans, but little did they know it was the start of something special.
A 6-0 thumping against the Netherlands followed, before a 3-3 draw against Finland. These results were in the friendlies leading up to the start of a campaign that would provide fans with moments of delight, and moments of despair. Northern Ireland finished second from bottom but managed a brilliant 1-1 draw away to Portugal and a home win against Russia.
The home win to Russia was the first win for O’Neill, some 595 days after taking over as manager. Although the World Cup was now out of reach, this result is one that fans will look back at as being the turning point for Northern Ireland’s fortunes.
After putting in an impressive performance against Portugal, before Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick to end the match 4-2 to Portugal, Northern Ireland went to Luxembourg and lost 3-2, and at the time many predicted another collapse in the ‘Green and White Army’s’ fortunes.
With Northern Ireland looking like a team that could only turn up when the big teams are around, O’Neill helped to deliver something special, something that will never be forgotten in the memories of the people of Northern Ireland, a trip to the Euros in France.
A 2-1 victory away to Hungary kicked-off the campaign, this was only O’Neill’s second win in charge of his country. A 2-0 home win against the Faroe Islands was a sign that times were changing again for Northern Ireland, and with a 2-0 away win to Greece, fans started to think, maybe this is our time.
The next game was a 2-0 away defeat to Romania, but this was only a small dent in the campaign. The results kept coming for Northern Ireland, and after a 3-1 home win against Greece, the party was starting to begin, Northern Ireland under the leadership of Michael O’Neill had gone from losing to some of the lowest-ranked teams in the World, to a spot in the European Champions for the first time in their history.
The Euro 2016 campaign will go down in history for Northern Ireland, and O’Neill became one of the fans favourite managers. The 2-0 win against Ukraine is one that proves his managerial worth, making five changes and going for what he believes is the best instead of what the stats are saying. Northern Ireland reached the Round of 16, with a Gareth McAuley own goal against Wales ending the tournament the tournament for O’Neill’s side, doing better than many predicted.
Northern Ireland fans packed out the refurbished Windsor Park for the World Cup Qualifying Campaign, but O’Neill’s men missed out on back to back major tournaments due to a horrendous refereeing decision, when Corry Evans was penalised for handball, despite the ball hitting his back.
Shortly after the World Cup Play-off exit, O’Neill was linked to various clubs and countries including Scotland and Sunderland. He rejected them all and opted to remain in charge of his country.
O’Neill would make sure his country bounced back from the World Cup Qualifying exit and in a tough Euro 2020 qualifying group, they won their opening four matches and got a point against the Dutch in what would be O’Neill’s penultimate game in charge.
Shortly before the Dutch game, O’Neill accepted an offer to take over as manager of Stoke City but was allowed to finish the campaign as Northern Ireland manager. The 6-1 defeat away to Germany was O’Neill’s final game in charge of the ‘Green and White Army’ and is not a result that reflects his time in charge, due to the team having to be heavily rotated due to injury and suspension.
O’Neill was going to be taking charge of the Nations League Play-off semi-final against Bosnia and Herzegovina and the potential final at Windsor Park against either the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia. This, however, has been postponed till after the opening matches of the next Nations League campaign, something O’Neill would not be taking charge off.
In a statement O’Neill said “After careful consideration and following discussions with the Irish FA I feel it is only fair that now is the right time for me to step aside. I would have loved the opportunity to manage Northern Ireland in the UEFA 2020 play-off game versus Bosnia and Herzegovina and the chance to qualify for another major tournament, but the current situation means that this is no longer possible. It has been an honour and an enormous privilege to have had the opportunity to manage my country and I will treasure my time as manager of Northern Ireland forever.”
The departure of a much-loved manager is heart-breaking to Northern Ireland fans, who will have wanted nothing more than to give O’Neill a huge send-off celebrating qualifying for the Euros, with rumours that he might have even stayed on to oversee the finals.
But it wasn’t to be and someone else will be putting on the green and blue striped tie and selecting eleven players to go out onto the pitch and do their country proud. Michael O’Neill’s name will be one that will be mentioned for decades to come, as being the man to take a team containing players that weren’t necessarily the best but had heart, determination and belief, and done every single fan proud.