Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

O'Neill not the problem with Northern Ireland - but he could do more

Northern Ireland restart after Israel score their second goal on Tuesday

It just goes to show you how brilliant David Healy was for Northern Ireland in his pomp. He would rock up at Windsor Park and smash home a blinding goal or two or three, inspiring the team to a famous victory.

All was well. As England, Spain, Denmark and Sweden would confirm, Northern Ireland were a force to be reckoned with on home turf in the mid noughties. And competitive on the road too.

Healy's 36th strike for his country came last November earning a face saving point in injury time against Azerbaijan.

Prior to that Killyleagh's finest had not netted at international level for four years. How Northern Ireland missed those goals.

To give an indication of the extent, Israel visited Belfast in August 2009 and again on Tuesday night. Our record in that time reads: 32 games, two wins!

Effectively since King David's goals dried up, we haven't scored many and hardly won any, proving he deserves to go down as one of the most influential footballers in this nation's history and outlining how nobody has come within a million miles of stepping into his goal-filled boots.

Those figures also show that Northern Ireland's dreadful run of form has been going on for some time – it has not just happened on Michael O'Neill's watch though his record of nine matches without victory has obviously not helped matters.

O'Neill's side play attractive football in the middle third of the pitch, and enjoyed 60% of possession on Tuesday, attempting 500 passes (74% success rate), which was much more than the 395 passes made by England in Montenegro, but in the really important areas on the field they lack conviction and it is costing them dearly.

Put simply O'Neill's men don't score enough – just six so far in those nine games – and they concede far too many.

The demoralising 2-0 defeat at home to Israel in the Group F World Cup qualifier means that 19 goals have been shipped since the former Shamrock Rovers boss took over and most of them ought to have been avoided.

For instance what Jonny Evans, one of the most accomplished defenders in the Premier League, was doing allowing Itay Shechter to coast past him leading to Israel's second goal was anybody's guess.

Maybe the Manchester United star didn't want to risk a second booking on the night and a red card, but given his club form this season he should have had the confidence to make a clean challenge and either win the ball or at worst give away a corner.

Evidently not. He's not alone though. I've been banging the drum regarding the whole lack of confidence issue for some time and was interested to hear O'Neill refer to the worrying problem in his post match briefing.

The dismal end to the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, which led to then manager Nigel Worthington taking fearful stick from supporters, still haunts the team. It seems when our players put that green shirt on, their self belief button clicks off.

All this has left Northern Ireland sitting in fourth place in Group F with just three points from five games having failed to overcome Azerbaijan, Luxembourg and Israel at Windsor Park.

O'Neill must find a way to get inside the heads of the players before the next match. He also needs to make quicker substitutions as he continues to leave his switches until it is too late.

We were told Healy looked sharp in training yet he was only given seven minutes. Paddy McCourt, another capable of making things happen, was held back until 78 minutes. Northern Ireland were trailing by then.

Israel boss Eli Guttman made his key change on 69 bringing on Lior Refaelov. Tellingly he remarked after the match that he did so because in previous fixtures he had noticed Northern Ireland were not as organised or compact after the hour mark and wanted to take advantage of that. Outcome: Refaelov broke the deadlock.

There are times that I feel Michael has genuine promise as an international manager, but he has to start fulfilling it and the players have to start delivering results for him and the fans, who pay good money to watch them.

We aren't demanding qualification for major finals, but winning when we should is a realistic target.

Half the qualifiers are over and bar a brilliant 1-1 draw in Portugal, it has been poor so far. We hope for and require much better in the remainder of the campaign.

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