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Inspirational O'Neill is guiding Northern Ireland from depths of despair to the promised land

By Steven Beacom

Published 08/09/2015

Euro 2016 Qualifier - Northern Ireland Vs Hungary at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland legend David Healy watching the match with fans.
Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Euro 2016 Qualifier - Northern Ireland Vs Hungary at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland legend David Healy watching the match with fans. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
J McLorn with his son David at Windsor Park. Pic: J McLorn
Northern Ireland fans during this evenings game at Windsor park. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland fans during this evenings game at Windsor park. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland's fans during the game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Photo David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland's fans during today's game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Photo David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland's fans before the game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Photo David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland's fans before the game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Photo David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland fans George King with twin son's Mason and Christain before the match against Hungary during Monday night's UEFA EURO 2016 Group F Qualifier at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park, Belfast. Picture by Brian Little/Presseye
Northern Ireland fans (L-R) Charlotte Cummings with her father Paul and sister Zoe from Antrim. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Mason King (12) with his father George King, twin brother Christian and Daren Leighton from Donegal Pass. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland fans (L-R) Ethan Gibson(14), Lewis Orr-McCauley(16), Mathew Gibson(12), Samantha Orr-McCauley(6) and Grant Orr-McCauley(11). Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland v Hungary at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland fans Mark Paul with his son Rhys and Gary from Newtownabbey. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland fan Daniel Gracey (5) Ballymoney during Monday night's UEFA EURO 2016 Group F Qualifier at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park, Belfast. Picture by Brian Little/Presseye
Buddy and Mylo watching at home. Photo: Kristine Hill
David McLorn before going to Windsor Park. Photo: J McLorn
Rory Beattie (8 months) getting ready to watch the match. Photo: Linda Taylor
Husband and wife Neil and Lorainne Fentie are looking forward to the big match against Hungary at Windsor Park. Picture Matt Bohill.
Northern Ireland fans Matthew Kernaghan, James Abraham, Ryan Blakely and Ben Speers cant wait for the big match at Windsor Park. Photo: Matt Bohill Pacemaker Press.
Little Jake Quinn who is to lead out the Hungarian national team at Windsor Park cheers on Northern Ireland on top of his dad Graham Quinn's shoulders. Picture Matt Bohill Pacemaker Press.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill ahead of the match against Hungary during Monday night's UEFA EURO 2016 Group F Qualifier at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park, Belfast. Picture by Brian Little/Presseye
Northern Ireland Niall McGinn, Stuart Dallas and Josh Magennis ahead of the match against Hungary during Monday night's UEFA EURO 2016 Group F Qualifier at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park, Belfast. Picture by Brian Little/Presseye
Northern Ireland players during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Hungary.
Northern Ireland players during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Hungary.
Hungary manager Bernd Storck during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Hungary players during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Hungary players during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Hungary manager Bernd Storck during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Hungary.
Hungary manager Bernd Storck during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland's Chris Baird during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Hungary.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill (right) at this morning's training session - Hungary awaits. Picture - David Hunter.
Hungary on the horizon as Northern Ireland train at Windsor Park. Picture - David Hunter.

Michael O'Neill entered the room with a look of dejection on his face. There was disappointment and a touch of disillusionment too.

His opening game as Northern Ireland manager had finished moments before and here he was about to conduct his first post match press conference as boss having just watched his side lose 3-0 to Norway at Windsor Park.

He was not in a happy place.

It was a friendly with no points at stake, but that didn't matter to O'Neill. He had wanted to start with a victory.

Maybe it was the two late goals from Norway that had deflated him.

Up until the 87th minute, Northern Ireland were only trailing 1-0 and in with a chance of nicking a draw.

But as the final whistle approached on February 29, 2012 the home team folded like a cheap suit.

As a subdued O'Neill answered questions, realising the task in front of him, I told him not to feel too down as there would be better times ahead.

Given his demeanour I didn't want to say there would probably be worse moments too thinking this was only a friendly. Wait until the qualifiers - the matches that really count - begin.

The 2014 World Cup campaign proved that.

For the most part, the results were awful for O'Neill's team.

Northern Ireland drew 1-1 at home to Luxembourg. It was the same outcome at Windsor Park against Azerbaijan, and only thanks to an injury time equaliser from David Healy, his 36th and final goal for his country. There was also an ill disciplined 2-0 defeat in Azerbaijan and worst of all a humiliating 3-2 loss to the part-timers of Luxembourg in the Stade Josy Barthel stadium.

That was two years ago. Luxembourg, with a population of 550,000 people had last won a home World Cup qualifier in 1972!

The Michael O'Neill who entered the press room that night was not so much disconsolate and frustrated... more fuming at his team's performance.

In my view it was Northern Ireland's worst result ever. As embarrassing as it gets, being beaten by a team made up essentially of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.

Back then O'Neill disputed my opinion over it being the worst loss in the country's history, but at the same time admitted it was an unacceptable outcome.

Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland (14) celebrates with Shane Long (9) as he scores their first goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland (14) celebrates with Shane Long (9) as he scores their first goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Republic of Ireland's Glenn Whelan (right) and Georgia's Valeri Kazaishvili battle for the ball during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 7, 2015. See PA story SOCCER Republic. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Republic of Ireland's Jeff Hendrick (right) and Georgia's Solomon Kverkvelia during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 7, 2015. See PA story SOCCER Republic. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 7, 2015. See PA story SOCCER Republic. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Republic of Ireland's Glenn Whelan and Georgia's Tornike Okriashvili (left) battle for the ball during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 7, 2015. See PA story SOCCER Republic. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Georgia goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili punches the ball clear from Republic of Ireland's Ciaran Clark (centre) and Shane Long during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 7, 2015. See PA story SOCCER Republic. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan (centre) battles for the ball with Georgia's Guram Kashia (left) and Jaba Kankava during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 7, 2015. See PA story SOCCER Republic. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Georgia's Solomon Kvirkvelia (left) and Republic of Ireland's Jon Walters battle for the ball during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 7, 2015. See PA story SOCCER Republic. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Georgia's Jaba Kankava (left) and Republic of Ireland's Glenn Whelan battle for the ball during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 7, 2015. See PA story SOCCER Republic. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Republic of Ireland's striker Jon Walters (L) vies with Georgia's midfielder Georgi Navalovski during the Euro 2016 qualifying group D football match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on September 7, 2015. Republic of Ireland won the game 1-0. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Republic of Ireland's striker Shane Long (centre left) jumps for the ball as Georgia's goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili punches clear during the Euro 2016 qualifying group D football match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on September 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Republic of Ireland's players celebrate their first goal during the Euro 2016 qualifying group D football match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on September 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Republic of Ireland's defender Seamus Coleman (L) vies with Georgia's midfielder Georgi Navalovski (R) during the Euro 2016 qualifying group D football match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on September 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Winning goalscorer Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland celebrates with Robbie Brady after the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Aleksandr Amisulashvili of Georgia clears the ball from Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Jaba Kankava of Georgia holds off Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Martin O'Neill manager of the Republic of Ireland reacts during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland (14) beats Giorgi Navalovski (22) and goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili of Georgia (12) to score their first goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Zurab Khizanishvili of Georgia challenges Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Jaba Kankava of Georgia holds off Glenn Whelan of the Republic of Ireland during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Solomon Kvirkvelia of Georgia and Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland battle for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: (L-R) Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland, Jaba Kankava of Georgia and Wes Hoolahan of the Republic of Ireland battle for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: (L-R) Ucha Lobjanidze of Georgia, Wes Hoolahan of the Republic of Ireland, Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland and Jaba Kankava of Georgia battle for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: (L-R) Ucha Lobjanidze of Georgia, Wes Hoolahan of the Republic of Ireland, Jonathan Walters of the Republic of Ireland and Jaba Kankava of Georgia battle for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: (L-R) Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Jonathan Walters and John O'Shea of the Republic of Ireland line up prior to the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Ireland players line up prior to the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D qualifying match between Republic of Ireland and Georgia at Aviva Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

The fans certainly felt that way, in particular those who had paid hard earned cash to make the trip, and there was a school of thought amongst some that he wasn't up to the job. My own feeling was that he deserved another crack, another campaign, because while there were dark nights in the World Cup qualifiers, there were rays of light too.

For instance like a masterclass in tactics when Northern Ireland drew 1-1 in Portugal on the occasion of Cristiano Ronaldo's 100th cap.

Then there was the 1-0 win over Fabio Capello's Russia at Windsor Park.

At the end of a rollercoaster World Cup qualifying campaign, which had more lows than highs, Northern Ireland finished fifth and a few officials in the IFA were twitchy about keeping O'Neill.

Thankfully wise old head that he is, President Jim Shaw, was insistent that O'Neill had the ability and character to take the team forward.

He was aware that O'Neill was building a strong relationship with his players. Not always the case with Northern Ireland managers.

Then the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign came around. With the expansion in teams qualifying for the finals, even a third place finish in a six team group guaranteed a play-off place. And the draw was kind.

Romania, Hungary, Greece, Finland and the Faroe Islands. Nothing to fear there.

Three games in, Northern Ireland had nine points.

And Michael's expert man management was coming to the fore, with Kyle Lafferty in fabulous form.

Others like Chris Baird, Gareth McAuley and Oliver Norwood were also inspired and, bar a defeat in Romania, Northern Ireland continued to pick up points with the players wanting to win as much for the gaffer as they wanted to win for themselves.

They didn't win last night but fought to the finish and that never say die spirit swept them to a vital point.

O'Neill remains on course to be the first manager to take Northern Ireland to the European Championship finals.

Even that was beyond the legendary Billy Bingham who guided Northern Ireland to World Cups in 1982 and 1986.

This team have come a long, long way. So, too has Michael O'Neill, following that first defeat in charge against Norway and the shocking result in Luxembourg.

O'Neill may still deliver Northern Ireland to the promised land.

What an outstanding effort to date.

What a magnificent manager.

Great work Michael, great work.

Belfast Telegraph

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