- Jan. 15, 2012
On December 28, 2011, former Portland Timbers midfielder Michael O’Neill was appointed manager of Northern Ireland. Though he spent just one season with the Timbers, the 2001 debut in the A-League, O’Neill is a timely reminder of the lifespan of the green and gold. His no. 8, though brief, is an important link in the Timbers’ story.
O’Neill moved from his first professional club, Coleraine in Northern Ireland, directly into the English First Division when he joined Newcastle United in 1987 at the age of 18. In his first season on Tyneside, O’Neill scored a dozen goals while playing alongside Paul Gascoigne. When Gascoigne moved on to Tottenham, Toon dropped to the bottom of the First Division table in O’Neill’s second season.
A move to Scotland’s Premier League saw O’Neill spend five seasons at Dundee United, scoring eleven times though his club finished in fourth place each of his seasons at Tannadice Park. Three years at Hibernian saw a revival in his career, leading to a move back to England. In 1996, O’Neill signed on with Coventry City in the English Premier League. Though he appeared just five times and endured two separate loan spells, his time at Coventry ultimately made O’Neill the first Timbers player to play in the Premier League. Two more seasons at Wigan Athletic in Division Two (then the third division) and one at St. Johnstone back in the SPL preceded O’Neill’s move stateside to the Portland Timbers. He also won 34 caps for Northern Ireland between 1988-96.
As a Timbers midfielder, O’Neill was a tenacious player, equally capable of scoring, assisting or seeing red. Indeed, his six assists in just one season are good for 13th place in Portland’s second division history. Yet it was his goals that helped set the pace for success in the first A-League season.
After losing 2-1 to El Paso Patriots in their first ever A-League match, the Timbers traveled to Provo Utah to face the Utah Blitzz in US Open Cup qualifying. Though Portland ultimately fell 2-1 after extra-time, O’Neill’s opened his account for the Timbers with a 62nd minute goal. The next day, in Reno, Nevada, O’Neill scored twice more to lead Portland to a 4-1 rout of the Northern Nevada Aces, again in US Open Cup qualifying.
Back in the league, O’Neill scored five times from his midfield position, notching goals on May 23 against El Paso, July 9 against Milwaukee Rampage, a penalty on August 26 against Charleston Battery and a brace again against Milwaukee on August 30. In league play, O’Neill’s goals only came in victories. He then scored in the Timbers’ 3-2 second leg playoff victory at Charlotte Eagles on September 22 to secure a place in the A-League quarterfinals.
O’Neill embodied the rivalry with Seattle Sounders. He played his hardest against the Timbers’ most hated rivals and was sent off twice against the Sounders: the first coming on May 12 after a fight with Seattle’s Viet Nguyen and the second back in Portland on July 21.
It is easy to skip past O’Neill’s single season wearing no. 8 for the Timbers, and he was not the first no. 8 to have played in England’s First Division (Barry Powell, Jimmy Conway and Terry Donovan preceded him). But Michael O’Neill was the first Portland Timbers player to have appeared in the Premier League. Though Peter Withe was the first former Timber to manage a national team (Thailand and Indonesia), O’Neill joins Dale Mitchell as the only Timbers players to manage their country.
The quality in the 2001 Timbers cannot be overstated, and Michael O’Neill was among the best. His no. 8 is as valuable as any in Timbers history.