When Northern Ireland football manager Michael O’Neill led his men into Europe with last week’s 3-1 win over Greece, the happiest fan among the 12,000 at Windsor Park was his Portadown-born wife Bronagh.
The former Bronagh Magee had seen her man struggle through the early poor results after his 2011 appointment through to “his greatest achievement in the game since he started playing for Coleraine at the age of 15.”
But their ‘relationship’ goes back far beyond that. For little Bronagh Magee and Michael O’Neill were P1 classmates at Portadown’s Presentation Convent Primary School when they were just four! They were fresh-faced pupils of Miss Moorhead.
Most people think that Michael is a Ballymena man. But no. He was born here in Portadown, and left shortly after those P1 days, with parents Des and Patricia – who lived at Enniscrone Park - to Mid Antrim. He was to meet and fall in love with his former classmate many years later after she graduated from Queen’s University as a teacher and he was at the start of his football career.
“We are all so proud of him,” said Bronagh, whose parents Eamon and Marie still live in the town. “He has worked so hard since he was appointed manager of Northern Ireland. When they qualified for France 2016, we were delighted. He has made history, with Northern Ireland making a major tournament for the first time in 30 years.”
They didn’t have time to celebrate properly, as Michael and players had to board the plane for Finland the next day, and finished the job with a one-all draw in Helsinki to finish top of Section F – and the joy of the fans was complete. Bronagh and the girls headed for her parents’ home in Portadown to watch the Finnish finish on TV.
Michael O’Neill started his football days with Coleraine. His career took him to England (Newcastle United) and to Scots clubs like Dundee United and Hibs. He wandered off to America (Portland Timbers) for a spell, gaining 33 Northern Ireland caps along the way. And he’s an Open University graduate in finance.
It was during his Scottish sojourn that he and Bronagh wed back home in Portadown 19 years ago, and now they live in the Edinburgh area with daughters Erin (12) and Olivia (8).
“Most of the players are on the mainland,” said Bronagh. “I’m a primary schoolteacher in Edinburgh, so it’s a suitable base. Michael travels all over England and Scotland to cast an eye over players, and he shuttles back and forth to Northern Ireland to the IFA – and we visit our parents regularly.”
Michael took up management with Brechin City (2006), then moved to Shamrock Rovers until his appointment in 2011 to NI. “It was tough going at the start,” said Bronagh, “with a poor run of results. But he has worked so hard. He has done it his way, and we’re all so deeply proud of him.
“Many of his players are from the lower divisions, but he had instilled such a pride in their team, and the atmosphere at Windsor was electric when they beat Greece 3-1. The girls and I didn’t go to Finland. We went straight to Portadown to mum and dad after the Greek triumph, and everyone was thrilled to bits.
“I collected him at Belfast City Airport when the charter flight came back from Finland. The fact that they finished as leaders of the section was the icing on the cake.”
Fancy footwork has also been a foundation of the happy O’Neill marriage. While Michael plied his footer trade at various levels in his youth (he started with Chimney Corner), Bronagh was an Irish Champion dancer (pupil of the legendary Irene McCann) and she carried off oodles of trophies that would make any manager green with envy!
“We regard this as his greatest triumph, - so far!” said Bronagh. “Hopefully, Northern Ireland will top this one in France next year, but in the meantime we’ll enjoy what has been a total turnaround in the fortunes of the team – and a turnaround in Northern Ireland, for it has created real euphoria throughout the province.”