Being Catholic is not why I got Northern Ireland job, says boss Michael O'Neill
Published 13/11/2015 | 11:08
Michael O'Neill has rejected suggestions he was offered the Northern Ireland job because he was a Catholic.
He revealed he responded to claims that his religion was a factor by replying: "I'm not here to say Mass."
The 46-year-old was appointed manager of the national team in 2011.
Jim Magilton and Iain Dowie had been considered the frontrunners, only for O'Neill to be offered the post after an impressive interview.
At the time he was forced to deny suggestions that his religion played any role.
Northern Ireland had seen a number of players from a nationalist background switch allegiance to the Republic.
O'Neill said: "There was media speculation that was one of the reasons I was appointed.
"I remember being asked, 'do you think you've got the job because you're Catholic', and I said, 'I'm not here to say Mass, I'm here to pick a team'."
O'Neill has become a fans' hero after guiding Northern Ireland to Euro 2016.
It will be their first appearance at a major tournament in 30 years.
He will be in the dugout tonight as Northern Ireland look to close out a remarkable year with victory in a friendly match against Latvia.
But in a powerful interview with BBC Scotland, O'Neill revealed how he had been a phone-call away from turning down the job.
Four weeks before O'Neill was interviewed, he had spent five hours in a meeting with two directors of Hibernian Football Club.
O'Neill had made 97 appearances as a player for the Edinburgh-based club between 1993 and 1996.
His managerial career was taking off after guiding League of Ireland side Shamrock Rovers to domestic glory and into the Europa League group stages.
O'Neill felt sure he would be offered the job - but never heard from Hibs again.
He was alerted that individuals were spreading malicious rumours that he had a drink problem - which he did not.
"I was appalled to hear that," he added.
"Yes, I'll go to the pub and have a beer, of course, and I always enjoyed as a player being around my team-mates, but I don't think anyone would ever say that I was a poor professional as a player.
"The other thing about it was that I was commuting from Belfast to Dublin.
"It was virtually impossible for me to have a drink problem, I spent most of my time in the car."
The suggestion that the false rumours may have played a part in being rejected as Hibs manager rankled with O'Neill.
"If it was something of that nature that stopped me getting a job then it's poor because, if chairmen had dug properly, they'd have found quite clearly that it wasn't true," he added.
"I have a fair idea where that came from - you find things out. It came initially out of Ireland from someone who was trying to help someone else get a job.
"At the time, I had a Dublin-based agent, Fintan Drury, who was quite a powerful man in Irish sport and he tackled it with the people in question.
"Had a job in Scotland been offered to me prior to the international job, I would have taken it, but it wasn't offered to me. Personally, I didn't think I was ready at 41 years of age to be an international manager."
While O'Neill believes he knows who the individuals in Ireland and Scotland are, he has moved on from that time.
O'Neill's playing career started at Coleraine, before a cross-channel switch to Newcastle United.
Relegation and a change of manager saw him move to Dundee United when he was 20.
However, he had a fraught relationship with the club's volatile manager Jim McLean.
"Jim McLean was always ahead of the game ... but you had to withstand the abuse at times," he adds.
"I was different from a lot of the young lads at United, because I'd been signed, at the time it was a record fee they paid for me, and it was almost as if Jim McLean held that against me."
After retirement in 2004, he embarked on a career in financial services. He started his management career with Brechin City, a Scottish Second Division side.
In 2009 he was appointed boss of Shamrock Rovers and led the Dublin club to their first title in 16 years in his second season.
They also qualified for the Europa League group stages - an unheard of achievement for a League of Ireland side.
The success generated resentment from opponents, but O'Neill also encountered additional abuse.
"You were from the north and at times what people would shout at me during games was not particularly pleasant," he added.
O'Neill is already looking forward to next summer's tournament in France.
While he describes club management as "very appealing", he would be happy to continue in international management.