Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill: Let's make 2015 a big year in our history

Boss already turns his sights to Finland clash as he aims to deliver for the fans

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill has enjoyed a fine year, easily his best as Northern Ireland manager.

He knows, though, that if 2014 was good, 2015 could prove to be the best of his footballing life.

On Friday night Northern Ireland may have suffered a deserved 2-0 defeat in Romania, but such were the results in the three previous Euro 2016 qualifiers, nobody is too despondent about the beating in Bucharest.

As it should be. This is a time for everyone connected with the Northern Ireland football team to be positive; manager, players, supporters and even the media.

Twelve months ago we were reflecting on the climax of a desperate World Cup qualifying campaign when only seven points were amassed and one win secured.

Try nine and three respectively in the Euro 2016 series and it's not even the halfway mark yet! Northern Ireland are second in the table, a point behind leaders Romania. They finished fifth last time, a point ahead of the part-timers of Luxembourg.

Some transformation.

If the players were down after the result and a lack-lustre performance in Romania, the overall picture is that under O'Neill, well respected by the squad, this Northern Ireland side is on the up.

With four out of the six Group F fixtures in 2015 at Windsor Park and one of the away games against the Faroe Islands, O'Neill's team are in a strong position to claim a top two place and qualify for the finals in France... or at worst end up in third and face a play-off.

The Faroes have enjoyed their one big result in this campaign winning in Greece, who with three defeats out of four and Claudio Ranieri sacked, look out of contention already. Finland, on four points, lack conviction and confidence, which leaves third-placed Hungary (7), table-topping Romania (10) and Northern Ireland, sandwiched in between, the likely nations to fight it out.

Northern Ireland, with victories over Hungary, the Faroes and Greece to date, next play on March 29 versus Finland (the first Sunday international at Windsor Park) and then in Belfast on June 13 against Romania, ahead of which O'Neill will put specific plans in place for the preparation of his players, given many of them will have finished their club seasons over a month before.

Windsor will be rocking for both fixtures with a vociferous and optimistic Green and White Army keen to play their part for the country to qualify for a first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup finals.

"It's been great for the players to see the positive impact their results have had in Northern Ireland and we aim to continue that. 2015 should be fantastic with the levels of excitement knowing that we are in with a real chance of qualification," said 45-year-old O'Neill. "Next year could be a special year. If we were to gain qualification it would be massive for football in general in the country, not just the national team. There's a generation of people who have not seen Northern Ireland at a major tournament and our aim is to deliver that."

So, what does O'Neill feel it will take for the dream to come true?

He says: "Against Finland and Romania at Windsor the players must show high levels of intensity and quality of play. It is a different scenario playing at home than away. There will be a different expectation and the onus will be on us. That requires a lot of belief.

"It is about players like say, Oliver Norwood and Shane Ferguson, stepping up and backing up senior players like Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes and younger players showing they are capable if called upon like Conor McLaughlin has done.

"A huge factor for us will be to have our top players injury free and clear of suspension in those games. It would be a big boost for example having Jonny Evans available, hopefully with him playing regularly with Man United.

"If you look at the back five who played on Friday, three (Roy Carroll, Conor McLaughlin and Ryan McGivern) are in League One and Aaron and Gareth aren't playing much. Also Chris Baird in midfield had played one club game since Greece.

"That was a factor in our performance. In the first half we didn't win enough second ball and sometimes that comes down to where you are in terms of being game ready.

"By the time Finland comes around I want players playing at club level with confidence. In this campaign we have done really well, but there is still a lot of hard work ahead."

With O'Neill in charge, the players will be ready to do it.

How things have gone on road to France

Hungary 1 NI 2

September 7, 2014: Momentum is a buzzword in sport right now. Northern Ireland got it with this brilliant victory to start the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign on a high.

It didn’t look good though when Tamas Priskin opened the scoring for Hungary on 75 minutes. But displaying character and confidence, the visitors roared back with Niall McGinn finishing off a fantastic move on 81 minutes before the same player set up Kyle Lafferty’s deciding goal in the dying seconds.

Hungarian boss Attila Pinter was sacked after the match — his first competitive game in charge!

NI 2 Faroe Islands 0

October 11, 2014: In the run-up to this match at Windsor Park, half of which resembled a building site with construction work going on to modernise the stadium, there was much talk about Northern Ireland’s inability to defeat Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in the previous campaign.

This time was different. Michael O’Neill’s players started fast, with early goals from Gareth McAuley and Kyle Lafferty putting the home side in control. Roy Carroll kept them there with a superb penalty save from Frodi Benjaminsen prior to the break ensuring the second half was a stroll.

Greece 0 NI 2

October 14, 2014: In historic Athens, the players created history by becoming the first Northern Ireland side to win their opening three games in a qualifying campaign. This was an excellent performance from Northern Ireland, scoring early on through Jamie Ward’s deflected effort and rarely being troubled after that thanks to a strong defence and the composure of captain Steven Davis and Chris Baird in midfield. Kyle Lafferty sealed the points with an outstanding strike on 51 minutes to complete a marvellous individual display, as Northern Ireland moved clear at the top of Group F.

Romania 2 NI 0

November 14, 2014: Missing influential skipper Steven Davis and Jamie Ward, both of whom had played in the previous three wins, Northern Ireland found it tough to get going in Bucharest.

Romania, under new coach Anghel Iordanescu, were the better side leapfrogging Northern Ireland into top spot with a deserved victory.

The visitors, constantly under pressure because they lost possession too easily and starved Kyle Lafferty of quality service, held out until the 74th minute when full back Paul Papp delivered a cracking finish. On 79 minutes the game was over with Papp again raiding forward to score.

Belfast Telegraph