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Bar goes up a notch for league's high achievers

THE appointment of Michael O'Neill as manager of Northern Ireland last Wednesday bridged a 77-year gap in the relations of the IFA with the League of Ireland. That's how long it is since the Northern body last acknowledged the achievements of someone competing in the Republic of Ireland's premier league.

In 1934, the IFA selectors chose Bohemians' Derry-born centre-back John McMahon for a British Championship game against Scotland. Scotland won 2-1, and the IFA didn't turn their attention to Dublin again until their appointment last week of O'Neill, whose managerial success with Shamrock Rovers had brought him to the fore as a likely successor to Nigel Worthington.

In a strange twist, O'Neill, who was a full-time manager of a part-time club, now finds himself as a part-time manager of full-time players. It's a dilemma faced by all international managers, and will be a new problem for the astute O'Neill to get to grips with.

Given his background at international level, and the success he has enjoyed so far, there is every reason to believe that O'Neill will be equal to this task also.

"One of my biggest strengths," he says, "is that I am not afraid to make decisions." And, in talking to the Shamrock Rovers players, they have nothing but praise for a manager whose attention to detail and treatment of his staff are regarded as exemplary.

O'Neill says he played under a lot of managers and saw how things should and shouldn't be done. "I feel it's important to look at footballers not just as players who train and play matches, but also think of careers outside football. If you think not only of what they can give you as players, they'll give you everything back."

As a footballer, O'Neill was a bit of a nomad, clocking up 13 clubs before he retired. And when he stopped playing, he put the degrees he had earned in the Open University to good use, working as a financial consultant in Edinburgh.

It was a background which served him -- and the clubs he managed -- well. Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers were both part-time outfits, and O'Neill's proud boast was that he left both clubs in a far healthier position than when he joined.

He put in a wage structure at Rovers, which he adhered to strictly. "The club is successful and has money in the bank," he said. "That's the satisfaction I get from my three years here."

Winning two League titles and the Setanta Cup, and guiding Rovers to become the first Irish club to compete in the Europa League, means that O'Neill has raised the bar to unprecedented heights for his successor, Stephen Kenny, who, although a couple of years younger, has many more years of managerial experience under his belt.

For Kenny, like O'Neill, this is a job which takes him home. His earliest coaching was with Tallaght Town, while he captained Old Bawn Community School, which played its games where Tallaght Stadium now stands.

It also takes him into a budgetary realm which is the exact opposite to that which he has experienced heretofore. At all his previous clubs, money was scarce and his success was built on his ability to get the best out of bargain basement signings.

With Shamrock Rovers, Kenny will have practically the pick of the League of Ireland, and he is inheriting at least 11 of the squad which performed so well in 2011. That is likely to rise as he sets about signing his 22-man squad, and he also indicated that he would be spreading his net abroad to put together a team that will play "exciting" football. "Winning is not enough to keep the crowds," he asserted.

Whatever about the style of play, the O'Neill-Kenny show should be worth watching as they settle into their new roles.

Sunday Indo Sport