“He’s done all right,” says Darren Jackson when asked how well he feels his long-time pal Michael O’Neill has done in steering Northern Ireland into the last 16 of their first European Championships against all the odds.
Something of an understatement followed a few seconds later by his true feelings – “Unbelievable, out of this world. I’m over the moon for him, delighted.”
Jackson – now assistant manager to Gary Locke at Raith Rovers – and O’Neill have been the best of buddies for close on 30 years, their playing careers intertwining firstly at Newcastle United and on to Dundee United and Hibs, and he has seen at first hand the meticulous attention to detail which has brought his old Easter Road team-mate such success in France.
He said: “I went down to England with Michael one weekend when I wasn’t working because a lot of his players are playing there and on the Saturday morning we went to see Blackburn Rovers play Reading, in the afternoon it was Accrington Stanley – I can’t remember who they were playing – and on the Sunday it was Wigan against Barnsley and then Liverpool and Watford.
“That’s Michael, he does the job thoroughly. He wanted to go and watch Craig Cathcart of Watford. He knew what he could do, he was always going to be in his squad but the players appreciate him going to see them play.”
Unlike tomorrow’s last-16 opponents Wales, themselves enjoying a remarkable tournament, Northern Ireland don’t have a Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsay to call upon but, insisted Jackson, 46-year-old O’Neill has moulded together a squad of 23 players prepared to give their all.
He said: “Northern Ireland do have some very good players, Jonny Evans who was at Manchester United for so long, Steve Davis who is doing incredibly well at Southampton, and an experienced back four.
“Then look at Michael McGovern’s performance against Germany, People would have looked at him and said he ‘just’ plays for Hamilton. He’s not a superstar but he produced a superstar performance.
“There’s a core there and Michael has a squad who want success, who will do anything and work their socks off to bring success.
“I hesitate to mention Leicester City, everyone does at the moment, but that’s what they had. They worked to a system, everyone knows their job, they stick to it and when you have that you have a chance.
“Michael is very thorough, incredibly so, his tactics, the organisation – the players take that in.”
After hanging up his boots, O’Neill began to carve out a career in finance before re-entering the game as assistant to Mixu Paatelainen at Cowdenbeath and then on as a manager in his own right at Brechin and Shamrock Rovers, leaving Jackson to argue that, had it not been for the financial world’s woes, he might have been lost to football entirely.
He said: “Michael was always very clever academically, very quick. Just try winning an argument with him.
“Obviously, it would have been better for everyone if we hadn’t had that financial crash but, if things had gone well on that side of things for Michael he might not have come into football management. But had he gone down that other route, no matter how well he’d have performed and achieved things in it, he would never have got the feeling he had the other night when his team beat Ukraine.”
But, while O’Neill, as manager, will always be the frontman, Jackson insisted he’d be the first to deflect the spotlight on to others, pointing to the impressive backroom staff he has gathered.
He said: “The one thing Michael will do is heap the praise on his staff. He’s got the experience of Jimmy Nicholl who has been there and done it, Steve Robinson who worked with Northern Ireland’s youth sides and is now assistant to Mark McGhee at Motherwell and Austin McPhee his video analyst, who does a fantastic job.
“I don’t know the rest of his backroom staff but they’ll all be doing an amazing job and will have played a massive part in what’s going on. Michael will be the frontman. As manager he will take the praise or get the stick but, at the end of the day, he will heap so much praise on his staff and players.
“But it’s been an incredible achievement. Magic.”
O’Neill’s painstaking approach hasn’t been lost on former Hibs boss Alex Miller, who had the midfielder, who won 31 caps for his country, at both Easter Road and Coventry City when he was assistant to Gordon Strachan.
He said: “Michael always was a thinker of the game as a player. He’s had a good grounding in management. He went in at the bottom level and worked hard while he played under some good coaches.
“He pays attention to fine detail. He leaves nothing to chance. I still speak to him now and again but it’s been a fantastic achievement. I’m really pleased for him.”