Belfast Telegraph

Pressure on Michael O'Neill with new Northern Ireland deal on the way

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill was in Belfast today to name his Northern Ireland squad for the final World Cup qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Israel.

He did so with the dark cloud of Luxembourg still hanging over him.

While all the players who underperformed that horrible night in the Stade Josy Barthel have long since returned to their clubs, O'Neill, soon to be handed a new contract by the Irish FA, has had to dwell on what I reckon was the worst result in Northern Ireland's history.

That won't have been easy for O'Neill, as thoughtful an international manager as I've come across covering our national side.

Painful as it is to recall, the 3-2 victory for Luxembourg over Northern Ireland was their first home success in a World Cup qualifier for 41 years and 43 matches!

They achieved it with just FOUR full-time professionals who played in lower leagues around Europe. The rest of the side was made up of students, bankers and a bloke working as a caretaker in a gym. Honestly, they would struggle to make Cliftonville's first XI.

Often in the past after defeats, Northern Ireland managers and players have thrown up the excuse about us having limited numbers to choose from in comparision to the opposition.

This time around our wee country was humbled by an even smaller nation with a population of just 540,000!

Then there was the joke fact doing the rounds adding to the embarrassment of all, Luxembourg having won more Eurovision Song Contests than they have World Cup qualifiers!

It's a pity O'Neill didn't have Dana and a few members of Bucks Fizz in his side that night because they would have offered up more movement and resistance than his anonymous midfield and full-backs! But for the efforts of central defenders Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley, I dread to think what the scoreline would have been.

Why then, you may ask, after the shocking defeat to Luxembourg, is O'Neill being offered a new deal?

Surely that's rewarding failure, comes the cry.

And in his 12 games as boss, hasn't O'Neill won just one?

Plus isn't it possible that if Northern Ireland don't deliver in this month's qualifiers in Azerbaijan and Israel they'll finish bottom of the Group F table?

Yes, yes and yes, yet there is a little more to do it than that.

Agreed, I've called for Northern Ireland managers to be sacked in the past, and every time either the bosses have done the sensible thing and resigned knowing their time was up or the IFA have cut them loose, but I do tend to believe in giving these guys TWO campaigns to prove themselves (except in the case of Lawrie McMenemy, which was never going to work).

O'Neill merits the opportunity to guide Northern Ireland into the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

He'll have learnt a lot since his appointment in December 2011 and can point to a superb 1-0 World Cup win over Fabio Capello's Russia and dynamic displays in two games against Portugal when the team shone as brightly as they have for some time.

O'Neill has also worked hard behind the scenes in trying to recruit players and keep them from the clutches of the Republic of Ireland, he has appointed two fine men and committed coaches in Stephen Robinson and Stephen Craigan to the underage set up, and been instrumental in the recruitment of Jim Magilton as the IFA's Head of Elite Performance.

This should bear fruit for Northern Ireland teams in the future.

For now though O'Neill needs to focus on making up for Luxembourg with acceptable results against Azerbaijan and Israel and starting the Euro 2016 series well.

He's been given a relatively free run by fans and the media so far, and for the most part his players and the IFA remain behind him.

On the back of the loss to Luxembourg, however, the heat is on.

In a savage post match rant, O'Neill labelled his players pathetic, claiming they lacked energy, desire, intensity and leadership.

But remember he was the man in charge of this dire display, just as Nigel Worthington was for a desperate 1-1 draw with the Faroe Islands.

That wasn't even a defeat but Worthington never recovered and became a dead man walking with the fans.

O'Neill has to ensure the same thing does not happen to him. The only way is to secure good results and have no more humiliating defeats.

Belfast Telegraph

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