Seven years after Mixu Paatelainen took Michael O'Neill with him as his assistant at lowly Central Park, Cowdenbeath, it was confirmed yesterday that the two men will lead their respective nations into an international friendly at Windsor Park, Belfast, in August.
The meeting with Finland will be O'Neill's third World Cup warm-up game in charge of Northern Ireland – following matches with Norway and the Netherlands – and Paatelainen told Herald Sport last night of his delight that his old Dundee United pal had followed him into the illustrious world of international management.
"It is amazing how things have developed in a short space of time but it is nice that we will meet up to play again," said Paatelainen, who is back in Scotland for the festive season. "Somehow we have managed to fix up a friendly before the appointment was made. They have got some great players and Mick's knowledge in football will enhance the team.
"I didn't quite teach him everything that he knows at Central Park, but it was a good time for us. We worked well together, Mick is a good coach, an intelligent guy and a really good person so I am delighted to hear that he is going to Northern Ireland. He is a deep thinker, an intelligent guy who thinks about the game and that is why he has been such a success. You can see him taking on top European teams and countries and doing wonderfully well so I am not surprised."
While Paatelainen gears up for the challenge of a World Cup group which includes both Spain and France – and the more realistic one of developing them for a proper tilt at the expanded Euro 2016 finals – O'Neill inherits the task of taking the likes of Rangers' Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty and Celtic's Paddy McCourt into a qualifying campaign which includes Portugal and Russia. It is the culmination of playing days during which he was plucked from Coleraine and thrust into the Newcastle United first team alongside Paul Gascoigne at the age of 18, and played for Hibernian, Dundee United, Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Portland Timbers and Coventry City under Gordon Strachan. His management career flourished in Dublin, where he took Shamrock Rovers to back-to-back Airtricity League titles and made history by gatecrashing the group stages of the Europa League.
But it may just have been the two years he spent at Glebe Park that were really the making of him. O'Neill never did get Brechin City promoted from the second division – they lost in the play-offs to Airdrie United in 2007, then missed out the season after, not to mention being thrown out of the Scottish Cup after fielding two ineligible players – but an attacking team featuring the likes of Iain Russell and Gary Twigg (who he would later take to Shamrock) won plaudits and led to him being linked with moves to the likes of Dundee United and Hibs. As Ken Ferguson, still the Brechin chairman, recalls, his achievement was no less impressive as he was working full-time for a mortgage website at the time. "Michael came along with a very impressive cv," Ferguson told Herald Sport. "Maybe to a degree I am surprised other Scottish clubs didn't take him, but with the pressure on the SPL clubs it maybe wasn't too much of a surprise that they didn't want to take a risk. Quite a few were keeping tabs on him but Shamrock were the most serious about it and Michael saw the potential there."
The 42-year-old, who eventually left Shamrock earlier this month after a contract dispute, beat his assistant Jim Magilton and Iain Dowie to the post, and has signed an initial two-year deal. He said yesterday that he looked forward to restoring "a sense of belief and pride" after recent years which have seen Manchester United's Darron Gibson and Everton's Shane Duffy choose to represent the Republic of Ireland after earning underage caps with the North. "I am confident we can make progress," said O'Neill. "That is my primary objective – to restore a sense of belief and pride in what it means to represent Northern Ireland."