Former Derry City physio Colm O’Neill admits he was more than a little surprised when Stephen Kenny came knocking at his door but said he was delighted to become part of his back-room team with the Ireland U21s.
O’Neill, who first worked alongside Kenny when the Dubliner was appointed Derry manager back in 2004, says he’s enjoying life back with the Tallaght man and is proud to have been given the opportunity to work with the national team set-up.
“It just came out of the blue to be honest, around August time,” insisted O’Neill.
“I haven’t worked with Stephen since he left Derry in 2011 but I kept in touch mostly via text message, stuff like congratulating him when he’s done well. Then in August I had a missed call from him but I was working and I said to myself I would ring him in a while. Within an hour there was a knock on my door and there he was asking me was I interested in coming down and working with the Republic of Ireland U21 set-up.
“Obviously I had to go and speak to (Finn) Harps at the time because that’s where I was working but, to be honest, it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
“The 21s wouldn’t be as in-depth as the seniors but there’s a doctor and then Kevin Mulholland, who is the Head Physio. He has been there for four or five years on his own. He’s the head physio and works with Southampton in the Premier League. I’m the assistant physio and working alongside him, so, we have three who are working in the medical side of things.”
With Kenny set to take over the senior reins from Mick McCarthy in June, could O’Neill also be moving up into the senior ranks?
“I genuinely mean this, I haven’t thought about the future. I’m going down there and I’m enjoying it,” he added.
“From what I know, yes, obviously Stephen is due to take over the senior team in June and if someone asks you to work with the Ireland senior team, you would be foolish to turn down the opportunity. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, I have no idea what’s going to happen.
“The medical department down there has probably been about a long time but the way I’m looking at it, I’m enjoying what’s happening at the minute and one of three things are going to happen in the summer.
“One: It’s going to be all over in the summer and I have enjoyed my year and had a great experience.
“Two: Whoever comes in as Stephen’s replacement, might ask you stay on which would be brilliant.
“Three: Then there’s the dream scenario of anything happening above that and of course, you would have to seriously consider it if it did.
“It’s been a brilliant experience but I’m a football fan and if you can’t play it, then it’s good to be involved in another capacity.”
Despite so much doom and gloom surrounding the running of Irish football at the minute, O’Neill feels the future on the pitch is bright with O’Neill believing the next generation of Irish footballers are capable of putting a smile back on the faces of local football supporters.
Since his appointment last year as Ireland U21 manager, Kenny’s young side has had some superb performances, most noticeably against Sweden in November. Trailing 1-0 at the break, the young Irish side produced a stunning second half display to secure a 4-1 win to secured top spot in their UEFA Under-21 Championship table, finishing three points ahead of Italy.
Players such as Troy Parrott, Aaron Connolly and Caoimhin Kelleher have tasted first team action in the Premier League for Spurs, Brighton and Liverpool respectively while at the weekend Adam Idah grabbed an FA Cup hat-trick for Norwich City but O’Neill believes there are more stars who will emerge from the U21s into the senior ranks in the not too distant future.
“Being involved with the U21s means I’m working with boys who are playing in the Premier League and Championship, boys whom I think will definitely come through to the next level,” he explained.
“Obviously, the likes of Troy, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly are already top quality but from what I see - though I’m no expert - there are also other boys who I feel could go far.
“At the minute I’m working with boys at the top of their sport, although maybe a couple of years behind in terms of where they go as a senior player. You are working with players that are as good as what is out there so it’s a great experience and they are all a great bunch of lads.”
And O’Neill revealed the former Dundalk manager, who won four Premier Division titles and two FAI Cups during his spell at Oriel Park, has maintain his football philosophy since he last worked with him in 2011.
“Overall he hasn’t changed. I was interested myself to see if he had changed, or had football moved on that much in terms of the level he’s at but to be honest, he hasn’t changed a bit.
“Obviously he’s at a higher level now and there are a lot more resources, technology, video analysis and staff but as a person and as a football manager, he hasn’t changed. Yes, he has evolved but overall his football principles haven’t changed from what I have seen.
“I came in to Derry City at the end very end of the 2004 season so my first full season working with Stephen was in 2005. I worked with Stephen pretty much throughout his time with Derry. I also went to Dunfermline Athletic for a year and a half with him which was another positive experience and then came back with him until he left the Brandywell but I stayed on with Decky (Devine) after that for a couple of years.”
Only a few weeks ago O’Neill, who owns Northwest Injury Clinic, decided to leave Harps and is now looking forward to spending more time with his family and taking his children - Cillian, Farrah and Freya - to the Brandywell in the 2020 season.
“Apart from that year in Scotland, I have been involved with the League of Ireland since the end of 2004, so that’s around 15 years but I have a wife and three kids, so I just can’t give the commitment,” he added.
“I have enjoyed it and love doing it. I enjoyed my time at Derry City and was lucky enough to be involved during a successful period under, first, Stephen and then Declan. I have done a couple of years at Harps, which I also fully enjoyed. Harps are a great club. Yes, I have always been a Derry fan but Harps are a great club too and Ollie (Horgan) does a great job. It’s just that the commitment is too much at the minute.
“As I said, family wise and social wise and nothing to do with the Ireland thing, I just can’t commit to Harps. The decision was probably coming even before the Ireland U21 job.
“To be honest, the Ireland U21 job is only sporadic. I’m needed every now and again. My decision to leave Harps is just a lifestyle choice but you never know what might happen in the future. At the minute I need a break and I’m actually looking forward to going back to the Brandywell as a supporter.
“I was a Derry fan all my life, long before I worked there, and now my young fella, Cillian, and my daughters, Farrah and Freya, want to go. In the past I could never take them on Friday night’s because I was always away working but, as I said, who knows what will happen in the future?
“Over the next couple of years it’s about getting some time away. The Ireland thing works in well for me because it keeps my hand in with football and keeps me involved but it’s only four or five times a year which works out great.”