Shamrock feats install O'Neill as unity candidate

Northern Ireland could be set to appoint their first Catholic coach for 49 years
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What if the greatest current story in Irish football is not the national side? Michael O'Neill, the manager of Shamrock Rovers, has taken the Hoops further and done it quicker than Giovanni Trapattoni's achievements with the Republic. Two domestic titles – and a frontier in Europe beyond any Irish team's reaching – mark O'Neill as a very significant individual. But if, as rumoured, he now becomes Northern Ireland's first Catholic manager for 49 years, his impact on the Irish game could be even deeper.

Shamrock Rovers won the League of Ireland for the second straight year this week. Playing at University College Dublin, Rovers needed to win to retain their title before the final day. The score was 1-1 in the 94th minute, before Dean Kelly tapped in to win the Hoops the league.

It was thrilling, but perhaps not even Shamrock Rovers' finest moment of the season. In August, Rovers won a play-off second leg 2-1 at Partizan Belgrade to reach the Europa League group stage, arguably the best performance by an Irish side in Europe since Rovers were knocked out of the Cup Winners' Cup in the second round by Bayern Munich in 1967. They have no points in the group yet, but did take the lead at White Hart Lane – something Internazionale could not do last year.

Behind all the success is O'Neill. The former Northern Ireland international has been in charge since December 2008. In his first season, he led Rovers to second place. Last year, he won them the title, their first since 1994. And now he has won it again.

Few men in football know O'Neill as well as Tommy Wright, the former goalkeeper who played with O'Neill for Newcastle United and Northern Ireland, and was O'Neill's goalkeeping coach for nine months at Shamrock Rovers. "We're close friends, we have been since Newcastle in 1989," Wright told The Independent.

"I've seen first hand what he can do," Wright said. "He's got attention to detail, he ticks all the boxes, his man management, he prepares his teams very well and tactically he's proved to be very astute. He's passionate, but he can also just stand and analyse a game and take a step back. He's very much his own man."

His success, and his stalling on signing a new contract at the Hoops, has inevitably led to clamour for O'Neill to fill the vacancy as Northern Ireland manager. Wright is confident that he would snatch at the chance. "If it came along, he would certainly take it," he said. O'Neill won 33 caps for Northern Ireland, and Wright believes he would be "one of the fans' choices" to follow Nigel Worthington.

O'Neill's cautious tactical approach is suited to overcoming teams of superior means – such as Partizan. "Michael has got criticised a bit for setting his teams up not to get beaten," said Wright. "Any new manager of Northern Ireland would do that the same: to get results we've got to punch above our weight. He will have a system in place, which he will stick to. Michael will try to get more control of the ball, and keep it. Long gone are the days when you can win international matches by a high tempo, in-your-face physical presence."

And there are reasons beyond mere astuteness that would make O'Neill an impressive candidate. Since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Irish Catholics have been allowed to play for the Republic: Darron Gibson and Marc Wilson have both done so.

O'Neill would be Northern Ireland's first Catholic coach since Peter Doherty, who led them to the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup. O'Neill's elevation to the role would be a significant moment in Northern Ireland's post-Troubles history,

Moreover, Wright believes that a Catholic manager would be able to dissuade young Catholics from switching to the Republic. "I'm sure Michael would make a good case to any player who's thinking of playing for the Republic. Some of the players who have left still haven't kicked a ball for the Republic." If O'Neill could do it, it would be an impressive feat of persuasion, and an significant one. But, for a man who brought two Irish titles and European football to Shamrock Rovers, the historic is simple.