Ex-boss McIlroy backs O'Neill as Russian game looms
If anyone knows how hard it is to win matches in international football then it’s Sammy McIlroy. Nobody has experienced more frustration in the Windsor Park dugout than the former international captain, who then managed Northern Ireland between 2000 and 2003.
Things weren’t too bad during the first couple of years, winning three of his first five matches as the country emerged from an era when his predecessor Lawrie McMenemy won just one competitive fixture.
David Healy burst onto the international scene with four goals in his first four games and there was a positive feeling again.
Then came a 14-match run without a win, with no goals in 13 and McIlroy decided enough was enough and accepted an offer from Stockport County.
Now the 88-times capped ex-midfielder is hoping that current manager Michael O’Neill does things the opposite way round.
O’Neill has been in charge of nine games and has yet to experience the joy of of winning a game as manager of his country and as well as having sympathy, McIlroy can see signs that things aren’t as bad as the statistics suggest.
The good news is that he’s a long way from hitting the depths of the 1940s and 50s, when Northern Ireland failed to win in 21 matches, from November 1947 to March 1954.
“As a manager you always have to show the players that you are positive,” said McIlroy.
“The thing that really hit me was the number of withdrawals we had and I couldn’t come to terms with that.
“It wasn’t just four or five, it was going into double figures and it wasn’t just once either, we were hit with withdrawals from every squad and Northern Ireland could never afford to lose that number of players.
“I hope Michael doesn’t have to go through that and I hope that he can unearth another David Healy.
“I gave him his first cap and he was fantastic for me.
“If someone else can come through and score regularly it would be a big boost so hopefully Michael can find one — or maybe even a couple — to get us going.”
There are some very real similarities between McIlroy’s reign and O’Neill’s tenure so far.
The football that has been played over the last year is better than at any time since McIlroy was in charge.
There is creativity, strength at the back — McIlroy’s team only conceded eight goals in eight games during qualifying for Euro 2004 — but wins are proving elusive.
“I had some very good feedback from the players who played for me, the likes of Jim Magilton and Steve Lomas, who said they enjoyed the way we played when I was manager and that pleased me,” said McIlroy.
“I always tried to win games and tried to play the right way. Those two lads, Neil Lennon, Keith Gillespie, they could all play football and I think Keith had his best spell for Northern Ireland while I was manager.
“The problem was that David Healy wasn’t scoring goals, there was nobody else coming up with goals either and that made it harder and harder to win games.
“I can see it in Michael’s team. He is trying to play attractive football and it’s good to see that he has made progress, but it’s hard when you aren’t winning because that’s what people focus on.
“I think the fans enjoyed the football that the team played when I was manager and they are enjoying it now too.
“Michael’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
McIlroy never got the chance to really build on the foundations that he laid.
By the time the players he brought through were nearing the peak of their careers he was gone and successor Lawrie Sanchez — who made very few personnel changes when he took over — reaped the benefits.
McIlroy wants O’Neill to be a long-term appointment, so that he can see his own hard work pay off and not the next man to take the job.
“I had to put players in who weren’t ready for international football, but I had no option,” said McIlroy.
“There were players retiring or coming to the end of their careers and I had to bring them through early.
“David Healy, Damien Johnson, George McCartney and Chris Baird all did well for me and they benefited further down the line.
“We brought Sammy Clingan and Steven Davis through to the under-21s at that time too and it’s been great to see all those players making an impact as the years have passed.
“I hope that Michael stays around long enough for the players that he has brought through and the things he is trying to put in place to bear fruit, because I believe that he won’t be far away if that happens.
“He has a decent squad, some very good young players and things will change. He’s trying his best and if he’s given the chance to improve things I believe he will.
“He has a good spirit within the squad, we saw that in the 1-1 draw away to Portugal when it was backs to the wall, fighting for a result in the type of performance that Northern Ireland teams were based on for years.
“In the 1980s it was all based on that and we got results to go with it.
“The difference was that we had one or two players who could win you a game and they don’t come along often for Northern Ireland,” the former boss added.