Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Get up off the floor ...and keep the faith

Northern Ireland goalkeeper Roy Carroll shows his dejection after conceding the first goal against Israel at Windsor Park
Northern Ireland goalkeeper Roy Carroll shows his dejection after conceding the first goal against Israel at Windsor Park

What happened on Tuesday night at Windsor Park summed up our 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign so far.

We played well, we created some good opportunities but ultimately couldn't get the opening goal that our play deserved – and boy did we get punished for it.

In my view the opening 45 minutes was as well as Northern Ireland have played in the group to date and possibly since Michael O'Neill took over yet when the final whistle blew we had nothing to show for it which is so frustrating.

It's a long time since we've looked so assured in a game and had such a sustained period of possession but the problem which has hindered us for years, scoring goals, came back to bite us.

Following the match, with O'Neill searching for answers for why it went wrong after a dominant performance he raised the point regarding the mentality of the players especially at Windsor Park.

Having been in the squad under Sammy McIlroy back in the early 2000s when we had a well-publicised run of poor results and having had problems initially playing at Windsor Park myself, the simplest way to overcome a mental block is to win games.

It sounds like a basic solution but that's what it boils down to. You can analyse and dissect games all you want but winning a football match gives everyone – fans, players and management alike – a huge lift and, more importantly, belief.

You can't give players self-belief – I'm sure O'Neill wishes you could – but they have to gain it themselves and winning games is the only way to do it.

As a manager there are things you can influence and be in control of, like your preparation, your training and the shape of the team, but players have the responsibility to do it where it matters and that's on the pitch.

Psychology is a part of a manager's remit too and always has been. Being able to work out the mind-set of a player and what motivates him is a challenge in itself.

You can make players feel good about themselves, you can make the environment they work in enjoyable and, according to the players I've spoken to, Michael has done all that.

However when the game itself gets to critical moments, players' decision-making has to be right and players have to be mentally tough and resolute.

I was in the side that beat England in 2005 against all the odds and the injection of confidence that gave us as a team was incredible.

That victory started a big turnaround in our performances, results and also crowds coming to watch us playing, and I feel that this team needs such a result to get it going.

In games that followed we went onto the pitch feeling we could beat anyone and didn't fear any team.

We earned that fearlessness because we beat teams that were supposedly better than us. Back then we felt going into games we would win and invariably that was the case.

Unfortunately the adverse effect happens when you're not winning games.

You feel that no matter how well you play something will go wrong in the game and you'll get beat and that's what the team are experiencing at the minute.

The longer games go and you haven't gone ahead anxiety creeps in subconsciously and it affects your game and decision-making.

We have to be more ruthless when we're on top in games, we have to be clinical when goalscoring opportunities arise and put that together with the quality we've shown in other parts of our play and I've no doubt we'll succeed.

It's hard to feel that way at present because everyone is deflated at a missed opportunity but I've been greatly encouraged how we have stamped our authority in recent games.

So as the dust settles on another disappointing night at Windsor Park where do we go from here?

First of all we wait to see when the Russia game will be scheduled for and we look forward to it rather than fearing it. Somewhere along the line we will get the win we deserve and we will certainly have earned it, that's for sure.

The negatives will evaporate and we will be optimistic again. Come on, remember the song 'We're Not Brazil ... '

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