Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Time for Michael O'Neill to be a winner at last

Michael O'Neill has gone a year without a win but can turn it around in this double header
Michael O'Neill has gone a year without a win but can turn it around in this double header

On the day this newspaper broke the news that Michael O'Neill was going to be the new Northern Ireland manager, I received a call from a well known former international.

Clearly perturbed, he questioned the validity of the story insisting "there's no way O'Neill will get the job ahead of Jim Magilton and Iain Dowie. He's only managed Shamrock Rovers for goodness sake..."

My answer was: "The deal is done, Michael has the job and good luck to him."

Reply: "He'll need it. If he is the new manager I think the IFA have made a mistake."

I guess over the remaining six World Cup qualifiers in this campaign, we'll have a better idea about that.

O'Neill may have 'only managed Shamrock Rovers' (he was also in charge of Scottish club Brechin for a while), but he was a huge hit in Dublin guiding them to League of Ireland titles and even more impressively into the group stages of the Europa League.

In that historic campaign the 43-year-old, a cultured midfielder in his day, showed that he could create upsets, a managerial quality that the Irish FA clearly admired.

Those involved in the recruitment process also felt he interviewed well and had bright ideas on and off the pitch that would take Northern Ireland forward.

Unlike a few others in the game, they did not feel the job was too big for him or had come to soon for him, even though Michael was not the IFA's first choice.

That was his namesake, Martin O'Neill, who politely turned the opportunity down because he wanted to manage at club level again – Sunderland came in for him shortly afterwards.

The then Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers, who has since moved on to Liverpool, was also on the IFA's radar, but while the Carnlough native has said he would like to manage Northern Ireland one day, he would readily admit now is not his time.

This is Michael O'Neill's time.

No sugar coating, as always I'll call it straight, so far the O'Neill era has largely disappointed, though he has the rest of 2013 to change that.

He has been in charge of eight games with five draws, three losses and no wins to his name.

It's true in that period, which started with a 3-0 home friendly defeat to Norway in February last year, Northern Ireland have faced tough opposition including Holland, Russia and Portugal but there have also been games against nations that should have resulted in victory, such as Luxembourg and Azerbaijan at home and Malta away.

As I wrote yesterday, we have talented players in the squad playing superbly at club level in top leagues around Europe. We aren't expecting the miracles of the mid noughties, but results should be better.

I'm not convinced that the players have totally recovered from the final matches of Nigel Worthington's reign which saw the Northern Ireland fans lambast the manager and his team, undermining confidence in the process.

As well as presenting them with the correct tactics, O'Neill needs to use his man management skills to get inside the heads of players, filling them with self belief and the courage of their convictions.

I'd also like to see him make substitutions quicker. Too often I feel he has let games drift when a fresh injection of blood could pump up the team and the crowd.

Jose Mourinho is a special one in this art of management. After Nani was red carded in Manchester United's Champions League clash with Real Madrid, Mourinho immediately brought on Luka Modric knowing that he could afford to have another attacking player on the pitch and that the former Spurs favourite would exploit the extra space. Result: Modric scored and Real won the tie.

See it. Do it Michael. Don't wait 15 minutes until it is too late.

On the upside, O'Neill proved in the 1-1 draw in Portugal last October, his finest night as Northern Ireland boss to date, that tactically he can be extremely astute.

His formation and selections in Porto were perfect, helped in no small way by taking the team to a training camp to work on specific plans and how to negate the influence of the great Cristiano Ronaldo.

The players excelled, carrying out O'Neill's carefully devised instructions to the letter.

That qualifier proved the promise and match intelligence is there for O'Neill to become a fine international manager. But, to stop the pressure growing, he needs to get that gorilla off his back and win a game.

At the moment the fans are behind him, but they don't completely believe in him.

Of course the forthcoming World Cup games at Windsor Park against Russia and Israel will be in tough. Victory, though, in either fixture or preferably both, would not only provide a much needed lift for the fans and players but represent a significant turning point for O'Neill as Northern Ireland boss.

He could really kick on from there and be the success we want him to be.

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