Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill taking Masters degree in sports directorship
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By Paul Gilmour, Sky Sports News reporter
Last Updated: 08/06/19 10:41am
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is taking a Masters degree in sports directorship, a qualification usually acquired by those operating in the business end of football.
O'Neill, who quit a job in finance to reinvent his football management career, currently tops a Euro Qualifiers group that includes Netherlands and Germany and has spent recent months balancing his self-funded studies with plotting how to stay at the summit before facing the heavyweights later this year.
The former midfielder travels to Manchester on a bi-weekly basis with the end goal being awarded a qualification from a course previously taken by England's director of cricket Ashley Giles, Rangers director of football Mark Allen and Red Bull racing's former performance director James De Mountfort.
The degree curriculum describes how graduates will cover "sports leadership, personal development, masterminding innovation and change, sport governance and best practice along with a diverse range of extra-curricular experiences".
It promises to deliver "all the formal skills needed to operate at the highest level of any corporate structure," and O'Neill is proving himself equally as comfortable as a business leader than he is in the dugout.
As one source close to O'Neill told Sky Sports News: "I wouldn't rule out Michael one day becoming a director of football. He is restless when it comes to self-improvement and his financial background could be a real asset but he's also keen to understand the role if he becomes a club manager and finds himself working with a DOF."
The subject of club management has come up again in recent weeks with the news that West Brom have previously shown interest.
He has never hidden away from the fact he would like to manage a club one day but has also turned down other jobs due to a combination of loyalty to the country he was capped 34 times for and well thought out decisions that they were not the right opportunities, namely Scotland and Sunderland.
Any opportunity to go to West Brom would have been well considered by O'Neill with due diligence done on the set-up and structure of the club. In the time he has been with Northern Ireland, the Midlands club has had 11 managers.
Sources close to O'Neill say the thing he craves most, like any manager, is time to build and a solid foundation.
Graham Potter's appointment by Brighton will be viewed as a victory for talented managers with a modest managerial CV being given a chance at a higher level. Not that there's anything modest about O'Neill's achievements since he swapped the calculator for the cauldron of pressure that is football management.
With time he was able to take semi-pro club Shamrock Rovers to the group stages of the Europa League where they took the lead against Spurs at White Hart Lane.
With time he helped galvanise and change the mentality of Northern Ireland players as they reached their first ever European Championships. And with time he came within a controversial penalty decision of taking them to a World Cup.
As ever with O'Neill, his attention to detail is meticulous as he plots a way to get the best from his well-documented modest sized player pool. He heads into the double-header against Estonia and Belarus with five players from League One, two 39-year-olds and two 'unattached' players.
An initial training camp in Manchester for players finishing their season in early May was followed up with a second camp, again at City's Etihad Campus. They spent the second part of their camp in the Austrian Alps acclimatising to the high temperatures they will face in Tallinn on Saturday.
Away from the hands on involvement with his players, O'Neill enjoys total control in his chief football officer role meaning he is involved in all aspects of developing football in Northern Ireland but he is realistic enough to know it will not work like that at club level, even with his ever-improving business background.
During one recent training camp when the squad met up at a Heathrow Airport hotel, he spent over an hour in the restaurant with his trusted scout Andy Cousins as they met the family of a Northern Irish teenager and outlined their vision for the future. His job is made more complex that young Northern Irish talent can also represent the Republic of Ireland.
His stats database is extensive, and along with the analysis input of assistant coach Austin MacPhee, it covers the senior squad down to 14 and 15-year-olds in the Elite Player Development programme. Not many would take that approach when the benefits of his work will only be noticed when he is long gone from the role.
At a recent key note speech to business leaders, something he is doing more often these days, he spoke about breaking down the successful Euro's campaign into a mini-league. He stressed the need to change the "accepting failure" culture and for a good structure to allow players to effortlessly slot in when changes are made.
Communication with the players was also a key factor as was setting goals and targets at certain stages. It meant players who had become used to qualifying groups petering out had strong motivation to buy into it.
The IFA will, of course, attempt to keep their man and that relationship has always been open and honest. As he proved with Scotland, talking to another association does not necessarily mean a departure is a forgone conclusion but with O'Neill approaching eight years in charge - only Germany, Andorra, Luxembourg and Faroe Islands have longer serving managers in Europe - the day Northern Ireland supporters fear could come soon.
The summer months are always worrying times for senior figures at the association but for the time being O'Neill will put his energy into Estonia and Belarus. It would set up what he described as a 'two-legged' contest with Netherlands and Germany.
It is still early for that kind of talk but finishing above either of those would put him top of the class.