When Stoke City drew Leicester in the FA Cup this season, the clash between the Potters and the Foxes might have been greeted with more enthusiasm on the other side of the Irish Sea than it was in Staffordshire.
After all, the third round meeting pitted two of Northern Ireland’s most esteemed tacticians head-to-head; the man who ended his country’s 30-year absence from a major international tournament versus the man who guided Celtic to three successive Scottish Premiership titles while sparking Liverpool’s stirring renaissance.
Yet this was hardly the first meeting of Michael O’Neill and Brendan Rodgers. Far from it.
The Stoke coach and the Leicester boss go back a long way.
They even played youth-team football together for Ballymena-based Star United, long before they were rubbing shoulders with Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Joachim Low in elite-level management.
“I know Michael well,” Rodgers told the Stoke Sentinel before Leicester’s 4-0 victory secured their place in the next round of the FA Cup. “He played for the Star United team that I played for in Ballymena as well. 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. 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.”
According to 90Min, O’Neill has emerged as one of the favourites to take over from the Amargh-born Neil Lennon at Celtic.
It seems that Rodgers’ old employers share his admiration for the 51-year-old tactician. And with good reason.
O’Neill is famed for his ability to eke every ounce of potential out of the players at his disposal, from limited veterans to overpaid, underperforming would-be-stars.
After walking away from the Northern Ireland post, he has succeeded in dragging Stoke from the bottom of the Championship and towards the verge of the play-off places.
Now, O’Neill would certainly have his work cut out emulating the remarkable strides Rodgers made in Glasgow; seven trophies during two-and-a-half, all-conquering campaigns.
But if Celtic wanted Brendan’s view on a man he’s known since he was a fresh-faced teenager on the other side of the sea, you’d imagine that the reference would be positively glowing.