How Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill outfoxed Russia's Fabio Capello
When Michael O’Neill walked towards the home dressing room at half-time on Wednesday night he did so with a spring in his step.
With his heart rate quickening by the second the 44-year-old knew that he was just 45 minutes away from the greatest triumph of his footballing life.
Martin Paterson’s superb headed goal just before the break against Russia in the World Cup qualifier had made the impossible possible.
Suddenly the victory that O’Neill craved, and desperately needed, was on.
Such a suggestion would have been laughed out of court an hour or even a month earlier. Or a year come to that.
O’Neill has had much to deal with since taking charge of the national side in January 2012.
More than any other Northern Ireland manager O’Neill has had to cope with losing talent to the Republic of Ireland and this despite him trying harder than any of his predecessors to stop the flow south made possible by a controversial Fifa ruling.
He was also lumbered with problems carried over from the Nigel Worthington era, which had ended acrimoniously. Fans were questioning the loyalty of players who in turn still had mental scars from shocking defeats at the end of Worthington’s reign.
O’Neill was up against it from the off. No matter the circumstances though a manager’s job is obtain results.
And bar a battling 1-1 draw in Portugal against Ronaldo and all, O’Neill wasn’t getting any. World Cup draws at home to Azerbaijan and Luxembourg were awful.
Nine games in and with no victories, fans were becoming disillusioned. Failing to win game number 10 would have meant O’Neill breaking an unwanted record of making the worst start ever by a Northern Ireland boss.
And with Russia the opposition, filled with high class players, requiring a victory to return to the top of the Group F table, the odds were stacked against the man from Ballymena. Guiding the Russians was Fabio Capello. He may have become a figure of fun and ridicule across the water with his broken English when in charge of Becks, JT, Rio, Stevie G, Lamps, Rooney and the rest, but across the football globe the Italian came to Windsor Park with an almost unrivalled reputation.
He was so revered at the Bernabeu and San Siro that he coached both Real Madrid and AC Milan TWICE.
On the face of it O’Neill wasn’t helped by late withdrawals to key players Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans, but in a bizarre way being unable to call on those two helped him because the Russians already confident of success became convinced that they would cruise to victory.
Second gear would be enough. Energy could be saved by players for domestic matters with their clubs Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow and big European ties to come. Complacency had set in.
O’Neill’s tactics have been consistent since day one. He has never altered his 4-3-3 shape and philosophy meaning that the players, who genuinely like the boss, know where they stand.
Without Lafferty and Evans he would have been forgiven for adopting a defensive approach.
But while defensive solidity and cutting down the elementary errors that killed the team in previous games was an important part of his strategy, O’Neill wanted his players to major in putting the visitors under severe pressure, not giving them time to settle, making possession count, getting the crowd involved and taking chances when they came.
He demanded a high tempo and cool heads. Everything clicked in the first half as Northern Ireland took a 1-0 lead. Capello and his team didn’t see it coming.
They came here for an easy ride and were stunned by the speed, intensity and sheer desire from those in green shirts.
Capello felt he could turn it round at the interval but it was O’Neill who came up with a masterstroke.
As he walked to the tunnel at half-time he knew it was not a time to get carried away in the moment. This was a time for the manager to focus minds and that’s exactly what he did.
As Capello, with the aid of an interpreter, tried to get his message across, O’Neill spoke in plain English about shape, discipline, possession and having the character to finish the job.
Follow those instructions to the letter and Michael knew his team would become heroes.
They didn’t let him down. Northern Ireland won and O’Neill left Windsor on Wednesday evening knowing he had outfoxed the great Capello.
O’Neill’s an ambitious guy and with a new contract coming from the Irish FA the good news for Northern Ireland fans is he’ll be determined that this is just the start.