O’Neill may be leaving Pohang Steelers, the joint-most successful club in Asian football (with three continental championships), for Buriram United, one that has not come close to winning even one, but this is no step down for the Australian.
He is joining a Southeast Asian powerhouse and it will be fascinating to see if he can help it get back to the very top.
Pohang announced Thursday that O’Neill has joined the Thai giants for a transfer fee reported to be between A$270,000-400,000.
His time in South Korea was mixed after joining the Steelers from Sydney FC in January, playing 13 league games.
After impressing in the first half of the season that was delayed by coronavirus, the 26-year-old, who leaves with a year left on his contract, found playing time hard to come by later in the campaign as Pohang finished third.
“We would like to express our gratitude to O’Neill,” Pohang said in a statement. “He played with a determined and sincere attitude and we wish him all the best at his new club.”
Coach Kim Ki-dong also paid tribute to the player’s professionalism and consistency.
From the southeast of Korea to the northeast of Thailand, Pohang and Buriram are two very different places.
One is a gritty, industrial city dominated by massive steelworks, with the other a small town at the centre of an agricultural rice-growing region.
One is a club backed by one of the world’s biggest steelmakers, and the other is owned by prominent Thai politician Newin Chidchob.
Buriram, with a history of signing players from the K League such as Jung Jae-yong and Go Seul-gi, are the most successful team in Thai history with seven league titles since 2008 - narrowly missing out on number eight on the final day of last season to Chiangrai United.
Being the most successful team in probably the best league in Southeast Asia gives Buriram a special place in the region. And it is not just about domestic success.
This is a club that has reached the knockout stage of the AFC Champions League twice, the only Southeast Asian club to do so.
Matchdays at the stadium built and owned by the club are not quite the events they were a few years ago when it seemed like the whole town turned out to support the team and the community spirit was tangible but attendances are still healthy.
Buriram is still a big deal nationally and internationally. There is pressure on players to succeed, especially foreign players.
The fans and media expect success and high standards. For those who embrace such demands, then their time in Buriram can be rewarding indeed.
And there is a big role for O’Neill to play. ‘Thunder Castle’ have been struggling to match their own high standards this season and currently sit eighth in the 16-team league after 13 games of the season.
Bozidar Bandovic resigned in October after the club’s poor start to the season and he was soon replaced by former favourite Alexandre Gama.
O’Neill is likely to be joined by more imports as, according to reports in Thailand, the Brazilian boss looks to ship out the current batch of foreign players as part of his plans to rebuild the team.
The Australian can establish himself as a major part of the new Buriram United era and the pressure will be on to show that this season is a blip after years of success and that normal service will be resumed before long.
That means titles and returning to the continental stage.