Back in 1989, a champion teenage Irish dancer called Bronagh Magee mesmerised an audience of Germans with her intricate footwork. The people of Bremen gave her a roaring standing ovation after she had treated them to a whirling dervish of an Irish jig.
The future Bronagh O’Neill (wife of NI football manager Michael) was part of a concert tour organised by her home town’s award-winning ensemble, Portadown Male Voice Choir.
All 50 men in the ranks agreed that the young woman, decked in the green of her local Irene McCann School of Dancing, had completely stolen the show.
Now she’s hoping that Michael’s men in green will mesmerise the Germans once again with intricate footwork - and the Poles and the Ukrainians - in the first stage of the European championships, as she prepares to travel to France with daughters Erin (12) and Olivia (eight).
“We’re in a high state of excitement,” said Bronagh. “It’s akin to the feeling I had all those years ago in Germany. I couldn’t believe that the choir had invited me to go with them on such a prestigious tour. It was an exciting time for a teenager.”
Bronagh and the girls are confident that Michael’s NI squad of 23 will make it into the next stages of the European competition. The opener is against Poland tomorrow; Ukraine on Thursday; and Germany on Tuesday, June 21.
Such is the interest in tomorrow’s encounter in Bronagh’s home town – where there is a large Polish population – that a Portadown hotelier is setting up a massive widescreen TV and inviting both sets of fans to view the big match.
Bronagh, who lives in Edinburgh and teaches in St Peter’s Primary School, said: “The girls and I won’t be able to get to the first match, owing to my teaching commitments. We’ll have to view it on television.
“We’ll get to the Ukraine and German games, and I firmly believe Michael and the team can move to the second stages by getting results in the first two matches. We have booked a hotel in Paris – and we plan to re-book for the next stage!”
Bronagh points out that Northern Ireland (ranked 25th in the world, their highest ever) are close in the listings to Poland (27th) and Ukraine (19th) – “and while Germany may be a different class at fourth place, anything can happen in football. Northern Ireland have every chance of moving on”.
The girls agree. They play football at their local Boroughmuir Thistle FC, and their dad likes nothing better than watching them strut their stuff in the game he relishes.
“It’s so relaxing for him,” said Bronagh. “Being based in Edinburgh is ideal for him to run an eye over Northern Ireland players who are coming through in Scotland and England. He has worked so hard, and has moulded players from the higher and the so-called lesser clubs into a solid unit.”
As well as Premiership clubs like Manchester United (Paddy McNair) and Southampton (team captain Steven Davis), minnows like Doncaster Rovers (Luke McCullough) and non-league Fleetwood Town (Conor McLaughlin) are represented in the squad. Then there are late recruits to the fold like Will ‘On Fire’ Grigg (Wigan Athletic) and Conor Washington (QPR). O’Neill’s welding together of the team is, in the words of his wife, “a wonderful achievement”.
Bronagh may have an inside track on the condition of ace striker Kyle Lafferty (Norwich City) who was injured in training on Monday. But she’s not being drawn on that one. “His goals were vital to qualification,” is her guarded comment.
She added: “Michael’s best quality –allied to his deep knowledge of the game – is that he treats players with fairness and respect. When you look at the list of clubs the players come from, it shows his expertise. Don’t forget that Northern Ireland have gone a record 12 games without defeat, including the entire qualifying stages. No other club in the Euro competition has managed that.”
Michael and Bronagh go back a long time – to their primary one schooldays, in fact. Michael was born in Portadown and they both went to the town’s Presentation Convent Primary School, actually sharing the same desk at that early stage of their education.
The O’Neill family moved to Ballymena soon afterwards, and Bronagh and Michael met and fell in love many years later after she graduated from Queen’s University and he was on the threshold of his football career.
After playing for Coleraine, he was transferred to Newcastle United and then joined Scots clubs Dundee United and Hibs. Then he moved to America (Portland Timbers) for a spell. He gained 33 Northern Ireland caps along the way. And he joined Bronagh in the graduation stakes, gaining a degree in finance from the Open University.
It was during his Scottish period that he and Bronagh married back home in Portadown almost 20 years ago. He entered football management with Brechin City (2006), then moved to Shamrock Rovers until his NI appointment in 2011.
“The international role was tough going at the start,” said Bronagh, “with a poor run of results. But he has worked very hard. He has done it his way, and we’re all so deeply proud of him. There’s a great spirit within the team, and the fans. It has brought so much joy to Northern Ireland.”
Who’d have thought that such a poor start would have gone into orbit with the Province’s first qualification for a major tournament in 30 years? And then there’s the start of World Cup qualifying, on Sunday September 4.
But one tournament at a time is the O’Neill mantra. And maybe mum and the girls will be joining with the fans, performing a victory jig on the terraces after the Poland-Ukraine-Germany round of matches! Memories of Bronagh in Bremen…
Tune up the fiddles!