‘Huge admiration’ – Brendan Rodgers and Michael O’Neill’s crossing paths from school to FA Cup


There would, in normal circumstances, be a warm handshake on the very cold touchline at Stoke City this weekend.

Michael O’Neill and Brendan Rodgers – who go head to head with Stoke and Leicester in the FA Cup tomorrow afternoon – grew up in the same town, played for the same junior team, albeit four years apart, and have known each other well for more than three decades.

Rodgers, aged 46, actually started coaching before 51-year-old O’Neill, who was still playing, but there is a lot of mutual respect having watched each other’s football journeys in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“I know Michael well,” said Rodgers. “He’s a few years older than me and played for the Star United team that I played for in Ballymena as well, although obviously he played before, and he went to St Louis’s Grammar School in Ballymena, I went to St Patrick’s, so I was aware of Michael in my teenage years.

“He had an excellent career as a player and he was always very bright. He was always going to be successful in whatever he went into.

“The job he did at Northern Ireland was incredible. There was a good generation of players but he was virtually starting from scratch. He virtually didn’t have an office.

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“I think he was there for nine years and created an environment for players to come – I know from speaking to Jonny (Evans) and other players – that really got them into what he was doing.

“We don’t have the biggest network in terms of players so to get to the Euros and the achievements he made were absolutely brilliant.

“I have a huge admiration for Michael. He’s a good man and he’s done an excellent job since he’s gone into Stoke as well.”

Rodgers represented Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland at youth level but his hopes were cut short at the age of 20 due to a knee injury.

O’Neill reckons he underachieved as a player himself, having burst onto the scene at Newcastle United at the age of 18 alongside Paul Gascoigne.

But there is no surprise with how he has turned out on the other side of the touchline.

Rodgers said: “I’m pretty sure we were just outside the age bands to play against each other. When I was starting school at St Patrick’s, he will have been in fifth of sixth year at St Louis’ College.

“But we passed each other. I was aware when I went to school in Ballymena – it’s a small country but particularly the towns are small – and you get to know of the talents. Of course, clearly, I was aware of Michael as someone who was a fantastic player who was interested in his education as well.

“He was always a bright guy. That was important for him as well as having a football career – and he was able to gone on and do both.”





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